Fairytale of New York: lyrics of The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl Christmas song explained - and is it offensive in 2020?

BBC Radio 1 will play an edited version of the track this year

By Jenna Macfarlane
Thursday, 19th November 2020, 12:28 pm
BBC Radio 1 will play an edited version of The Pogues track this year, which is sung by Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl (Getty Images)
BBC Radio 1 will play an edited version of The Pogues track this year, which is sung by Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl (Getty Images)

BBC Radio 1 has decided not to play the original version of the Christmas classic, Fairytale of New York, so its younger audience won’t be offended by the song’s lyrics.

Instead, the station will play an edited version of The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s 1987 track with the “offensive” lyrics edited out.

Radio 1 said its listeners may be sensitive to a couple of the song’s lyrical slurs to do with gender and sexuality, while Radio 2 and 6 Music will still continue to play the original Fairytale of New York.

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So, how has the BBC edited the song and why is it considered offensive in 2020?

Why won’t the BBC play the original Fairytale of New York?

Fairytale of New York may be one of the most popular Christmas tracks of the 21st century, but it contains controversial lyrics which have long been criticised for causing offence.

The song follows a heated row between an alcoholic and a heroin addict, and includes lyrics intended to be insults.

The homophobic slur “f*****”, which is sung by Kirsty MacColl in the original version, has been edited by the BBC to “haggard” using an old recording of the singer.

MacColl’s new line will be: “You’re cheap and you’re haggard”.

Band frontman Shane MacGowan also sings the word “slut” which is muted in Radio 1’s rendition.

The station has decided that its young listeners, who may not be familiar with the song, might find the derogatory terms “stark”.

Radio 1 had previously tried to censor the lyrics to the song back in 2007, but it was forced to abandon the decision after an outcry from listeners.

The BBC played an unedited version of Fairytale of New York on last year’s Gavin and Stacey Christmas special, which prompted hundreds of complaints.

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What has the reaction been?

There have been mixed reactions to the news, with some social media users supporting Radio 1’s decision while others have questioned why the song is offensive.

One Twitter user agreed with the BBC, writing: “Radio stations play edited versions of songs every single day, leaving out swear words. This is no different.”

Another responded to a claim that the decision was “ridiculous”, writing: “I dunno. If you’re gay and at school and that song plays on the radio, and bullies sing it at you in the playground, that’s probably not so much fun.”

However, many people were defending the original lyrics.

One tweet read: “As an openly gay man, I have no remote offence by the words and it is actually one of my favourite Christmas songs. This is absolutely ridiculous.”

Another user wrote: “It’s a song about 2 drunk lovers trying to insult and offend each other. The language reflects that. Censorship is alive and well.”

A lot of tweets made reference to “snowflakes”, a term used to describe people who are easily offended.

One person tweeted: “This is by far the best Christmas song and the snowflakes of 2020 just don’t get it. It is two people having a drunken squabble and trying to get at each other. Just have to listen to alternative radio stations!”

While another said: “I think the people that are raging that this ain’t getting played are the real snowflakes.”

When was Fairytale of New York first released?

The track was first released in 1987.

What is the song about?

When it first came out in the 1980s, Fairytale of New York didn’t even take the Christmas number one slot.

Now, it’s one of the most famous Christmas songs in the UK, returning to the top 20 chart every year since 2005.

The song’s story follows an Irish immigrant in New York being tossed into a drunk tank to sleep off his Christmas Eve drinking binge.

He hears an old man sing the Irish ballad The Rare Old Mountain Dew and begins to dream about the song’s female character.

Yet, the couple are hard on their luck as an alcoholic and a drug addict, with the song descending into a blazing row.

The Pogues’ frontman Shane MacGowan said the song was written as a result of a bet made by the band’s producer, Elvis Costello, that they would not be able to write a hit Christmas single.

Instead of a cover song, MacGowan and banjo player Jem Finer decided to write one themselves. The song was originally about a sailor and a distant ocean, but Finer’s wife suggested the lyrics were changed to focus on a hard-up couple at Christmas.

The female lyrics were originally intended to be sung by The Pogues’ bass player, Cait O’Riordan.

The band’s third album producer, Steve Lillywhite, took tapes of the song home for his wife, Kirsty MacColl, to record a scratch vocal - but she sounded so good that they decided she would sing the tune.

The song’s famous title was taken from a book called A Fairytale of New York by James Patrick Donleavy.

What are the original song lyrics?

Fairytale of New York’s original lyrics are still sung by many people at Christmas time, all over the world.

It was Christmas Eve babe

In the drunk tank

An old man said to me, won't see another one

And then he sang a song

The Rare Old Mountain Dew

I turned my face away

And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one

Came in eighteen to one

I've got a feeling

This year's for me and you

So happy Christmas

I love you baby

I can see a better time

When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars

They've got rivers of gold

But the wind goes right through you

It's no place for the old

When you first took my hand

On a cold Christmas Eve

You promised me

Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome

You were pretty

Queen of New York City

When the band finished playing

They howled out for more

Sinatra was swinging

All the drunks they were singing

We kissed on a corner

Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir

Were singing Galway Bay

And the bells were ringing out

For Christmas day

You're a bum

You're a punk

You're an old slut on junk

Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed

You scumbag, you maggot

You cheap lousy faggot

Happy Christmas your arse

I pray God it's our last

The boys of the NYPD choir

Still singing Galway Bay

And the bells are ringing out

For Christmas day

I could have been someone

Well so could anyone

You took my dreams from me

When I first found you

I kept them with me babe

I put them with my own

Can't make it all alone

I've built my dreams around you

The boys of the NYPD choir

Still singing Galway Bay

And the bells are ringing out

For Christmas day

Are there other offensive Christmas songs?

There are other Christmas songs that are thought to be offensive for different reasons.

One of these is Baby, It’s Cold Outside, the 1944 jazz track by Frank Loesser.

In 2018, an American radio station decided to pull it from the airwaves as it deemed the song unsuitable for the Me Too era.

Critics of the song say the lyrics are about a man pressuring a woman into spending the night with him when she is trying to get away.

The particular line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” has been said to be a reference to date rape.

Do They Know It’s Christmas, the 1984 Band Aid track, was written to raise funds to fight famine in Ethiopia but has since been criticised for referring to the entire continent of Africa rather than the specific country.

People have said that these lyrics fuel the common trope that all of Africa is the same.

Others have criticised the lyrics for reflecting the stereotype that African people need to be saved by the West.

Bim Adewunmi wrote in The Guardian in 2014: "There exists a paternalistic way of thinking about Africa, likely exacerbated by the original (and the second, and the third) Band Aid singles, in which it must be 'saved', and usually from itself. We say 'Africa' in a way that we would never say 'Europe', or 'Asia'.”

The classic Christmas song Jingle Bells has also come under fire for its racist origins.

In 2017, Professor Kyna Hamill of Boston University published a research paper which found that the song was originally performed in blackface in a minstrel show in Boston in 1857.

The research suggested that the song’s writer, James Pierpont, “capitalised on minstrel music” and “made fun of black people in the snow”.