It's that time of year. The TV advertisements are reaching deep into our pockets, shaking loose our spare change and selling us images of happiness and enjoyment. We're encouraged to overreach ourselves when it comes to hospitality, generosity and credit, we're subtly told that if we don't indulge ourselves and others to the utmost, we're somehow not taking part in this carnival.
Even the music tries to boost our morale. This is the time of year when the record companies traditionally reach to the very bottom of the barrel for that lowest common denominator that's going to connect with teens and grannies alike. Everything is presented as crisp, clean, shiny and somehow new, as if we hadn't come across this or that particular collection of songs before. I mean, just how many times is Island Records going to repackage Bob Marley's greatest hits?
Christmas songs, too, are insufferable in the main. Each year, we're guaranteed to get any combination of: a pink-cheeked choirboy singing something traditional in an impossibly high, pure voice; a hoary old rock group reaching into their back catalogue; a boy-band or five with something vaguely festive; some teenage apprentice diva; and Cliff Richard.
But once every decade comes along a song that subverts the genre, that transcends the immense pile of crap we have to wade through in search of a decent tune. For me, there are two Christmas songs that rise head, shoulders and torso above the rest. Here's the first.
Who would have thought it? Shane McGowan, a shambling hangover of a man, blessed with the ability to write immense, rabble-rousing yet sweet music; Kirsty MacColl, the unheralded first voice of British song; and the only song that McGowan could have written for Christmas. It's a bitter, bitter sweet argument of a song, remembered through the soft-focus of nostalgia. McGowan's sodden, wandering mumbling contrasts with MacColl's sweet, pure folk tones, like peanut butter with mayonnaise, but together they conjure up romance, sadness, fleeting moments of joy. The lyric time-travels through a doomed relationship: from "When you first took my hand on the cold Christmas Eve/You promised me Broadway was waiting for me" through "You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it's our last" to "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 built my dreams around you."
Why does this song lift us? The sweet, sweet music, MacColl's wondrous voice, the rambling, helpless and romantic lyric, they all come together for one eternal moment of sadness that smiles through the pain, the heartbreak, and finds something good to hold onto. And it's the kind of performance that could, in another world, have gone so horribly wrong but here, it simply, beautifully soars.
No bah, no humbug. Just perfect.