A Fairytale in New York London

For Whom the Bells Ring Out on Christmas Day

This post is by Jason Mehl:

A song your grandmother, your boss, and your bartender might all deem inappropriate for good but very different reasons — “A Fairytale of New York” is considered the greatest Christmas song of all-time by many in the United Kingdom. As an American, I can’t say exactly why millions of British people I’ve never had a pint with feel this way about the song, but I can tell you why it’s at the top of my Advent playlist and why it should be somewhere on yours. More than a song about Christmas, it’s a song about the American Dream, gambling, infatuation, impulsive actions, impulsive promises, idealism, love, addiction, impatience, heartbreak, existential crisis, long-suffering, and the power, hope, and peace offered by unconditional love. If you don’t know the song, you need to do more than listen to it. Spend some time with it, now, during Advent, with ears to hear.

I found “A Fairytale of New York” in East Africa while working in full-time cross-cultural ministry, early in my life of cross-cultural matrimony. I met my Irish wife, Louise, while we were both working with separate long-term mission projects in Uganda. We were married within a year and our separate cultures, stories, memories, and passions began flowing freely between us, mixing and meshing awkwardly, fearfully, and wonderfully.

On a Spring Saturday afternoon, honeymoon tags still on our luggage, Louise and I were setting up our cozy new home, merging art, framed photos, books, and CD’s.

“Who are the Pogues?” I asked.

“Seriously?” She asked. “‘A Fairytale of New York’? You don’t know it? I thought you knew everything that was great!” I shrugged. It was May, but she loaded the disc and sat on my lap full of Christmas morning zeal. “I can’t believe it,” she beamed. “This is the biggest Christmas song back home!”

I listened carefully. I was not convinced. The song was musically solid, but lyrically rough and unpolished. I knew it could never be a hit song in America and couldn’t understand how it could be a hit song anywhere. We disagreed lightly, had a few laughs, and moved on to the meshing of more important realities.

In a few months we were scheduled to spend the first two weeks of the following year in missionary training in Oxfordshire. We decided to leave a week early to spend a few days with Louise’s family in Ireland. Work commitments required us to wait until Christmas day to travel so we seized the opportunity to extend our life-long honeymoon with a Christmas night in London. When we landed and learned that all public transportation in London shuts down on Christmas day, our hopes were not diminished. Louise loves London taxis and we dashed, smiling, through a few steps of winter drizzle and dove into the back of one of a dozen timeless London taxis, snuggling, struggling to work our body temperature back up to equatorial levels.

It was late afternoon and getting dark, but we were still filled with the hope that Christmas day had brought us annually, separately, since childhood, and were thrilled to begin sharing new hope. We paid no attention to the radio until we heard “A Fairytale of New York.” Louise recognized it first and wrapped her arms around my waist and squeezed me like her favorite pillow. The song was weird back in Uganda in May. In London in December it was suddenly glorious. It was a pleasant surprise and we were brought to a place of newly shared comfort.

We arrived at the hotel, dropped our bags, and decided a cab ride to Chinatown was more likely to sustain our shared Christmas spirit better than a long wait at the hotel restaurant for ham and potatoes. The second ride was much shorter than the first, but it was still long enough for us to hear the entirety of “A Fairytale of New York” again. Twice in one evening within the same hour. After that, I had to take the song seriously and dignify its obvious cultural power. It was an event. We laughed joyfully all the way to Chinatown.

Toward the end of our overpriced orange chicken dinner, we acknowledged irrational dread. We weren’t afraid of the cold rainy battle for a taxi we’d likely have soon with other patrons who were also wrapping up their Christmas dinners. We dreaded not hearing the song for a third time. We’d been talking about the mysterious and meaningful value of three’s — Three Little Pigs, Three Blind Mice, The Three Bears, three wishes, three strikes, three cheers, We Three Kings, Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the Holy Trinity. Trinity’s are complete in a way that couples are not.

We stepped out, a taxi rolled up — no battle — we jumped in and sat huddled, but this time we were still, quiet, almost somber, on the edge of the cold leather seat, waiting, wondering if it would happen again — wondering what it would mean if it didn’t.

It did. Of course it did.

We smiled and sank back into confirmed comfort, completely relaxed, relieved, affirmed, as the song rained down from the heavenly places above the United Kingdom and washed over us all for more than four minutes. Our missionary souls, both producer and product of the prayers of many people, listened to the cosmos. We heard the story of two people from different places who come to the big city for separate reasons, find each other, kiss, dance, and make hopeful promises to each other. When the kissing and dancing wanes, life becomes difficult. We don’t need to know the details. They sin against each other in thought, word, and deed. In the end, after being attacked with rhyming vulgarity, the guy reminds the girl that their futures cannot be separated. Something that transcends attraction, admiration, and gratification keeps them together — something that draws one partner to the death bed of the other. Fear? Loneliness? Desperation? Covenant?

Our cab rolled up to the hotel and Louise and I floated like Chagallian lovers through the revolving doors. We were feeling far more than we were thinking, high on the magic of the UK’s most powerful Christmas song, in trinity. We enjoyed it like we should enjoy all the holy mysteries. We went back to our hotel room. A little over nine months later our daughter was born.

Looking back, I understand that our newlywed selves had heard the true prophetic story of our one-day selves — our future, life-weary, job-weary, debt-ridden, coupon and food stamp carrying, where-are-we? why-are-we? bad parent, bad spouse selves. We could not have known how damaged we would sooner and later be by fear, loneliness, and despair. Neither could we have known how gloriously content we would be, even in the dark seasons, when Love lifted us and settled us enough to allow us to recognize that we’ve been maintained and restored by covenant promises.

That’s the real magic of the holy mysteries and of “A Fairytale of New York.” Unconditional love rooted in promises kept. The guy was at the girl’s bedside when she O.D.’d and almost died. They are committed to one another. They’re good because they’re together. She needs to be reminded of that. Most likely, in the near future, he’ll need to be reminded of it and she’ll remind him.

The bells in London, New York, and the church around the corner, the bells that ring out on Christmas day, are the same bells that toll for thee. When they ring out on Christmas day they announce and remind us that God has kept his promise to us, his ungrateful, substance-abusing, forgetful people, by sending us all a Savior. “A Fairytale of New York” invites us to sit beside our neighbor, recognize the sweetness in the beer-soaked leather and second-hand smoke, and listen for the bells on Christmas day. Let’s long for those bells and the relationships and stories they inspire. Let’s remember the covenant promises that build and sustain faith, hope, and unconditional love and result in abundant life.

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5 responses to “A Fairytale in New York London”

  1. Carol Rogers Smith says:

    Fun to listen to in Kathmandu, weary from a trip to rural churches but happy because Clark just had a surprise Bday party! Love to y’all.

  2. Ken Sundet Jones says:

    Sadly, David Zahl did not include Fairytale in this years Christmas playlist. You and I should feel so superior and he should rue the day he sank in the world’s estimation.

  3. Jason Mehl says:

    Ha! We all fall short at times. May we never fall from grace with God.

  4. […] Mehl shares the greatest Christmas song according to many in the UK: “Fairytale of New York” by The […]

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