“It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank…”
Christmas music comes in many shapes and forms, soaring epics of angelic beauty, fromagey pop songs and glam rock anthems all coexisting on the radio. Other than the season, there’s not much commonality; heck, one well-known Christmas song even manages to be both blasphemous and scientifically inaccurate at the same time, which frankly takes a lot of doing.
But for me, one Christmas song stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s not religious, it’s not tidy, it’s not even PG. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Fairytale of New York.
It’s the story of two reprobates, spending Christmas Eve in a cell and a hospital. They have blazing rows and the language is pretty problematic and they’re not even sure they’ll survive the next twelve months. And yet despite all this, they find a glimmer of hope in a police choir singing ‘Galway Bay’. And somehow the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl turn a potentially depressing story into something glorious.
So we’re not exactly talking O Holy Night here, so what makes this a philosophically great Christmas song?
Well, there’s a thread of darkness that runs through the Christmas story: the disgrace that threatens Mary, the betrayal felt by Joseph, the lingering threat of Herod… Nativity plays only go so far, keeping well away from the murder of children and the Holy Family running for their lives. The Christmas card scenes are a pause among the chaos and confusion.
And that’s how it should be: if Christmas can’t reach into the drunk tank, if Jesus can’t be found among junkies and drunks, then we limit the Incarnation to cathedrals and church council meetings – and we should never, ever try to contain Jesus in that way. The joy of Christmas isn’t always found in the absence of darkness, it’s found in the middle of it; the light shines in the darkness but the darkness hasn’t overcome it. And so, if Jesus was physically walking the streets of New York or London today, he’d make time for the hobos and drunks and panhandlers – of course he would, because grace means that our imperfections aren’t a barrier to the joy of Christmas; maybe they’re the whole point of Christmas.
In the middle of the arguments and the disappointments, there is hope – sometimes we may only glimpse this, maybe in the music of the NYPD choir or a Salvation Army brass band, but sometimes the Incarnation is closer than we’d ever imagine and we need to watch for it, recognise it, listen for the grace in the darkness.
The bells are ringing out for Christmas Day.