IT’S an undeniable fact of life that the two greatest Christmas songs of all time are The Pogues’ ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ and Paul Kelly’s ‘How to Make Gravy’. Some will tell you art is subjective and beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that — and in most cases they are right.
But, when it comes to judging Christmas songs, it is a scientific fact that these two shine like beacons leaving all others to pale in comparison and sound like cheap television commercial jingles. Give me an abacus, chalk board, Bunsen burner and 45 minutes of your time and I will prove the fact to you — but there is no time for that now. So, take my word: Kelly and MacGowan’s songs–or at least one of them–is the star on top of the Christmas tree and the rest are mere baubles, perhaps even tinsel.
I hear you saying, “what about John Lennon’s ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over)’!?” Well, sure it sounds pretty but severely lacks the depths of the Great Two, but I’ll elaborate on that later. Others protest, “I think you’re forgetting Tom Waits’ ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’”. Ok, it probably should get a look in but that would ruin the whole concept of this article pitting Australia vs the UK in the Greatest Christmas Song of All Time Showdown.
I know most of you are reading this with complete faith in my objectiveness, for I am a Journalist and this is Media, but don’t be so hasty. As the Great Doctor of Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, himself said:
“…Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations. There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
So, I shall confess my biases in an effort to dissolve them: absolution.
I am an Australian, so am subject to irrational national pride and support towards Paul Kelly. But countering that, the Pogues’ classic prompted for me, what I can only describe as a Christmas miracle.
Shortly after the Girl who has been the subject of my complete and utter desire for the best part of 2011 told me Her and Her boyfriend were breaking up, the DJ in the bar played Fairy Tale of New York. She put Her arm around me as we sway and sung. I don’t know if it was my pitch perfect drunken singing or the beauty of the lyrics themselves, but as I belted out, “you’re a bum/ you’re a punk/ you’re an old slut on junk” she laughed, through her arms around me into what was a tight and close embrace and gave me a prolonged kiss just to the side of my mouth. I was so taken aback I almost forgot the next lines, “you scumbag/ you maggot/ you cheap lousy faggot/ happy Christmas my arse/ I pray to God it’s our last”. Poetry.
So, now, back to business.
There are similar themes running through both songs. The protagonist in each is spending Christmas, or in the FToNY case–Christmas eve at the very least–in jail. McGowan’s character is in the drunk tank, trying to drown out the sorrowful whines of an old man – with dreams “of a better time”.
Kelly’s character is serving a stint in prison for an undisclosed crime with his longings vocalised in a letter to his family, written and voiced in the lead up to Christmas.
The poignancy of each song is particularly emphasized for me this year, and perhaps you to, due to the distance between myself and my family.
The nuances of Kelly’s shimmering story telling evokes a pathos so relatable I challenge any Australian living in the UK, away from their family, to deny it doesn’t pluck at least one heart string with a mighty force.
Take the lyrics:
I guess the brothers are driving down from Queensland and Stella’s flying in from the coast. They say it’s gonna be a hundred degrees, even more maybe, but that won’t stop the roast […] And give my love to Angus and to Frank and Dolly. Tell ‘em all I’m sorry I screwed up this time. And look after Rita, I’ll be thinking of her early Christmas morning when I’m standing in line. I hear Mary’s got a new boyfriend, I hope he can hold his own. Do you remember that last one? What was his name again? Just a little too much cologne.
The names and situations might not be the same, but the sentiment is so interchangeable. The movements of the Loved Ones on Christmas day will be just in your head this year. Whilst, when you were a kid you’d wait for them to arrive with almost painful excitement and yearning, running to the door when you heard a car pull up. You saw them grow and develop, as did they of you, for as far back as you can remember. As the years passed you began seeing them less and less but Christmas remained as a staple–a guarantee–each year to see them and make sure they were still doing well and you felt handshakes and hugs charged with as much love and concern as they’d ever had. They saw you turn from cute kid to shy and nervous pre-pubescent to smartarse teen to trouble-making tween and they stuck with you all along despite all the fuck-ups. But, now you’re gone and you’re not going to get that yearly dose of reinforcement that they are there and alright.
“They say it’s gonna be a hundred degrees, even more maybe, but that won’t stop the roast”. Holy shit! That one line takes in and says so much.
I hope all my family live ‘til a Christmas I can see them again. Quit reading this and go and call yer family. Make them know, make them understand. Christmas isn’t about songs or Santa or Jesus or any religious belief. It’s not about presents or drunken hot-tub parties. It’s about your Mum and Dad, your brother and sister — grandma and granddad, uncles and aunties and cousins.
These songs really are good, though I can’t figure out which is best.
It’s probably Fairy Tale, or maybe How to Make… I really don’t know. You decide…
Comment below on your choice of the best: