The intersection of festivity and mental health in ‘Fairytale of New York’

The twinkle of Christmas lights and the warmth of festive songs often paint an idyllic portrait of the holiday season. However, this time of year brings forth a tumultuous blend of joy and melancholy for many people. The Pogues’ masterpiece, “Fairytale of New York,” stands as a poignant testament to this duality. Presented as an emotional duet between the late Kirsty MacColl and Shane McGowan, who himself has long-standing substance abuse issues, the song interweaves moments of celebration with underlying tones of melancholy and despair.

Through a deep dive into its lyrics and themes, we can better understand how “Fairytale of New York” resonates with countless individuals who are navigating the turbulent waters of mental health and addiction at Christmas.


Free Therapy
Embrace the spirit of our Christmas campaign and treat yourself to the gift of well-being. Enjoy complimentary 30-minute therapy sessions by simply sharing your name, contact number, and the topic of concern with us at In this season of giving, UKAT believes everyone deserves the support they need on their journey to a healthier and happier life.


The paradox of celebration and struggle

“Fairytale of New York” immediately throws us into a paradoxical setting with these lines, sung by MacGowan:


“It was Christmas Eve babe,
In the drunk tank,
An old man says to me,
‘Won’t see another one.’”


This arresting opener juxtaposes the traditional warmth and joy associated with Christmas Eve against the cold, sombre reality of a holding cell for those intoxicated. Here, MacGowan’s personal battles with alcohol become palpable, shedding light on how moments of celebration can be marred by personal struggles.

As the narrative unfolds, listeners are drawn into a reminiscence:


“You were handsome,
You were pretty,
Queen of New York City.”


These raw exchanges lay bare the frictions that substance abuse can introduce into relationships. The wistful lines are heavy with nostalgia, reminding us that memories of brighter days can sometimes deepen feelings of loss or longing, especially for those grappling with addiction and mental health. Amidst the fond recollections, stark confrontations ensue:

“You’re a bum, You’re a punk,
You’re an old slut on junk”

The relationship between the two characters has clearly turned sour and the contrast of once-happy memories against present-day conflicts underlines the volatile mix of love, resentment and despair that addiction can foster.

Memories, merriment and missed opportunities

The backdrop of New York City is more than just a setting; it serves as a metaphorical landscape for the tumultuous journey of addiction:


“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.”


The city, with its brilliant highs and desolate lows, is both a paradise and an unforgiving setting. This echoes the emotional roller coaster that many people experience when dealing with substance abuse. Other lines allude to alcohol’s dual role: a muse for memories and merriment, yet also a potential pitfall leading to overindulgence and regret:


“And then he sang a song,
The Rare Old Mountain Dew”


This duality is especially heightened during the holiday season when societal norms often blur the lines between celebration and excess. Christmas, in particular, is synonymous with alcohol, and this can make it a time of vulnerability for those in recovery, as the social expectation is to drink and be merry.

Another poignant exchange brings to the fore the weight of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential, feelings that often plague those battling depression, anxiety and addiction:


“I could have been someone.
Well so could anyone”


The despair is amplified by the co-dependent, destructive relationship in the song, casting a long shadow over what should be a time of hope, romance and celebration.

The many faces of the festive season

Christmas, with its sparkling lights and promises of joy, often arrives with a heavy baggage of manufactured happiness that can be overwhelming for those with anxiety and other conditions. “Fairytale of New York” beautifully captures this multifaceted nature in the chorus:


“The boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay’,
And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.”


These lines provide a snapshot of Christmas festivity, community and jubilation, reinforced by an uptick in the tempo of the song. Yet, these moments of light are interspersed with shadows, not least the fact that MacGowan’s character is listening to their song from his cell. Other lines evoke feelings of loss and the personal tolls that relationships marred by depression and mental health issues extract:


“You took my dreams from me,
When I first found you”


This oscillation between joy and sorrow, hope and despair, creates a mirror for listeners. It reminds us that while the holiday season may be billed as the ‘happiest time of the year’, it’s also a period of reflection, a time when past regrets and missed opportunities come to the forefront, especially for those wrestling with mental health challenges.

While this may be a bleak message, it can also offer solace, a reassurance that nobody is alone in their emotions during the holidays. ‘Fairytale of New York’ embraces the complexities of Christmas, making it an anthem for all – from those revelling in the festivities to those seeking a glimmer of hope amidst their struggles.


Glorifying the grit

There are instances in the song where substance abuse and addictive behaviours are portrayed in a light that could be seen as celebratory or romanticised. The following lines, for example, portray the thrill of winning at gambling:


“Got on a lucky one,
Came in eighteen to one,
I’ve got a feeling,
This year’s for me and you.”


Similarly, these lines paint a vivid, almost cinematic scene of a drunken night out in New York:


“Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing,
We kissed on a corner,
Then danced through the night.”


However, it’s crucial to approach these lyrics with nuance. While they do celebrate moments of celebration, they also fit within a broader narrative – one that doesn’t shy away from the consequences of addiction. The song’s portrayal of substance abuse is multifaceted, capturing both the allure and the aftermath, and in the broader context of the song, these seemingly celebratory moments underscore the complexities, where joy and pain, love and loss, often walk hand in hand.

Final thoughts

“Fairytale of New York” is much more than a Christmas song; it is a poignant reflection of life’s intricacies. The delicate lyrical dance – between celebration and regret, love and resentment, hope and despair – resonates deeply, particularly for those navigating the challenges of mental health and addiction. The duality captured by MacGowan and MacColl offers both a mirror and a balm, revealing that Christmas, with all its glitter and glow, can also be a time of vulnerability and pain.

While the holiday season is often painted with broad strokes of relentless joy, ‘Fairytale of New York’ reminds us that some people are fighting internal battles, often hidden behind festive facades. As we approach the holidays, we can carry this lesson with us, embracing both the cheer and the challenges and extending a hand of support to those who might be struggling in the shadows.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or addiction this Christmas, reach out. Nobody needs to suffer alone, and UKAT is here to support you in any way we can. Contact us today to find out more about our comprehensive addiction and mental health services.