Fairytale of New York – A Christmas Activity
It’s that time of year again – the time at which I feel most sorry for the employees of my local supermarket. For most of the year, shoppers and staff are treated to a healthy mix of pop classics and jazz standards: Ed Sheeran, Rod Steward, Ray Charles, Adele, that sort of thing.
But on the very first day of December, the balanced musical diet is replaced for a single Christmas CD which is played nonstop, on loop, until far into February.
Now, you probably don’t think of me as a grumpy old man. But the more I experience Christmas, the more I see it as a massive plastic fest. And so often, that is reflected in the same old songs that we are subjected to. They dictate that it’s time for us all to synchronize emotions and get jolly.
But what if you don’t want to? What if personal situations don’t allow you to feel good? Surely there is no Christmas song for that state of mind.
Actually, there is. And although it is never played in my local supermarket, it provides an excellent antidote to Christmas kitsch. It’s a song that was released exactly 30 years ago by The Pogues, the well-known London-Irish band who popularized a genre of music which you could describe as Irish folk punk. It tells the story of two nameless immigrants who leave their country to begin a new life in New York City. Just in case you don’t know it, let give you a summary of the story.
Of all the times and places that a young couple could fall in love, it doesn’t get much more romantic than Christmas Eve in New York City. He was handsome, she was pretty. This was a fairytale relationship based on high hopes and well-intentioned promises.
Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan. We can only speculate about the social and personal problems that the couple might have faced: unemployment, prejudice, racism, bad luck, bad company, eviction, homelessness, and addiction. Over time, the couple’s dreams are replaced by a reality of alcoholism, drug abuse, and gambling.
And now, of all the places that you could wake up on Christmas Eve in New York City, it doesn’t get much less romantic than the drunk tank – a prison cell for the detention of intoxicated individuals. That’s where the male character starts his day. He leaves the police station and goes to visit his long-suffering partner. When he sees her, he tries to win her over by showing her the money that he won on a horse the previous night. Bad move!
Fairytale of New York is a song with a legacy. I regularly hear people claiming that it is their favourite Christmas song of all time. And it has provided subject matter for many journalists and documentary makers. It was written as a duet with The Pogues frontman Shane McGowan singing alongside English singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl.
The most famous part is the second verse which consists of a call and response slagging match between the two singers. It contains words that were once censored by the BBC. I wonder if you can guess which words they considered to be offensive:
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
Junk: Slang for heroin.
If the slagging match is the most famous part of the song, the most touching part comes next. In the final verse, the Christmas argument turns into an moving heart-to-heart between the couple:
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
Click here to access the song on YouTube
Some time ago I uploaded this lesson plan on my website Lessonstream which makes use of the story that the song tells. It always causes a peak of web traffic around this time of year.
I know that a lot of teachers have used the lesson plan. It has been downloaded over 5000 times. But I always felt that my suggested activity was a bit complex and unnecessarily teacher-centred.
Every year I mean to update the activity and upload a new improved version.
One idea that comes to mind is to exploit the fact that the text (the song lyrics) provides a story sketch. What I mean is that the words say so much and at the same time, they withhold the perfect amount of information for our imaginations to speculate about.
One way to exploit this would be to give the lyrics to students and invite them to write questions about the narrative. These could include:
- How did the couple meet?
- What are their names?
- What were they hoping to achieve in New York City?
- How did things go so badly?
- What happens at the end of the story?
After doing this, you could invite students to use their imaginations to provide answers to their own questions. And once they have done this, they have created their own stories to share. This is a technique that I use twice in my book Videotelling and I kind of like it.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Fairytale of New York – A Christmas Activity
Jamie Keddie, Spain
10 Tips and Ideas for Your 'Christmas' Lessons, from ETpedia
Teaching a Classic American Short Story for Christmas: O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”
Bill Templer, Bulgaria