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Sometimes, I get asked about my favourite Christmas song. It’s a question I try to avoid.
You see, my favourite Christmas song is actually ‘Fairytale in New York’ by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, sung by MacColl and the oft-intoxicated Shane MacGowan, released (as it happens) twenty five years ago this week.
My choice is partly, no doubt, down to the fact that ‘Fairytale’ was a part of the soundtrack for my own teenage years, and those songs do tend to stick with you; partly because the post-punk aesthetic which both the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl explored was, and is, a musical style I enjoy; and partly because the storytelling element of the song is beautifully done. Whatever the reason, when the Christmas Hits CD comes on at the party, this is what I look forward to most.
And, as a Christian minister, that is slightly embarrassing.
It is not that we are supposed to cast a block vote for Cliff Richard and the ‘Millennium Prayer’. We are, thankfully, allowed more discretion in our artistic taste than that. But… a narrative that begins in a New York police cell, with the lead character arrested for being drunk and disorderly on Christmas Eve, continues through the break-up of a relationship, and which offers such choice exchanges as “You’re a bum! You’re a punk!” / “You’re a cheap 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!”…!? It’s not quite where my ordination vows were meant to take me, or so I am sometimes led to believe.
The story the song tells, however, is deeper than that. It juxtaposes the struggles and conflicts of poor immigrants with, on the one hand, the promise held out by New York (“They’ve got cars big as bars, they’ve got rivers of gold – but the wind blows right through you...”) and, on the other, the safe and settled cultural-religious traditions of the dominant social group (“The boys of the NYPD choir are still singing ‘Galway Bay’ and the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day.”) The song ends with the plaintive regrets of the socially deprived: “I could have been someone … You took my dreams away … I built my dreams around you … ’ The song tells a human story, because the best songs do, but it also illustrates a political story – a story of power and privilege and oppression.
The struggle of the oppressed against the powers that be … the cry of immigrants against the injustice of their lot … the endless hope of the impoverished that somehow, somewhen, society will become fairer: now, those are themes I can find in the Christmas story. Jesus, born to a homeless teenage mother, living in occupied territories on the West Bank of the river Jordan; Jesus, whose coming fulfils the hope of the faithful poor and oppressed of God’s people that one day, God will visit and redeem them; Jesus, forced to become an immigrant and a refugee in Egypt because of the oppressive regime back home.
‘But poverty and immigration and oppression are political questions. We don’t talk about politics at Christmas!’ No, we don’t. But we should. We should if we want to talk about the coming of Jesus – because the coming of Jesus was immersed in questions of poverty, and immigration, and oppression.
When Mother Mary sings prophetically “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) she speaks precisely of God’s care for the oppressed, the immigrants, the impoverished – and of the fact that the child she carries will be the One who finally and fully demonstrates the reality of that care. Mary’s song tells a political story, of a God whose face is set against the oppressors, but it is immersed in a human story, of the child to whom she will give birth.
Last year I wrote a report for Theos, The Politics of Christmas, which explores just how politically charged the story of Jesus’ birth is in the Bible. It is all about dethroning the powerful, and about the welcome that should be shown to immigrants, and about the liberation of the oppressed.
I do not suppose that the original music of Mary’s song fitted a post-punk aesthetic; certainly the lyrics draw on a different vernacular. But there remains, I believe, a deep resonance between Mother Mary’s Magnificat and Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Fairytale in New York’. Happy Christmas!
Steve Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of St Andrews
The Politics of Christmas can be downloaded without charge here.
Image by Theos.
Posted 20 December 2012
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.