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The familiar rhythms of modern Christmas

Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan - Credit: Getty Images

MITCH BENN on the annual controversy over Fairytale of New York.

One of my favourite things about the Christmas season is the way that new Yuletide traditions are always evolving and emerging to take their place alongside the more ‘time-honoured’ ones.

A recent addition to the canon of Christmas customs is the online game Whamageddon; as is often the case with online phenomena the game’s specific origin is somewhat shrouded in digital mist but it appears to have been invented about 10 years ago. It’s become a bigger deal these last few years as various radio hosts have encouraged their listeners to play along.

The ‘rules’ of Whamageddon are simple: one has to try to get from the morning of December 1 to midnight on Christmas Eve without hearing Wham’s 1984 Christmas hit (and biggest-selling ‘Number Two’ of all time – no sniggering at the back) Last Christmas. As soon as a participant is exposed to the song, they must declare this on social media and are then ‘out’ of the game. It’s considered unethical to ‘Whambush’ an opponent (calling them and then playing the song down the phone at them, for example).

Many people are bemoaning – or perhaps celebrating – the fact that current events have made something of a nonsense of 2020’s Whamageddon tournaments: the idea used to be that the song’s ubiquity at this time of year made it heroically difficult to go about one’s usual business without having the song blasted at you from a shop doorway.

This year, to save us from tiers (I’m not even sorry), we’re not doing much in the way of usual business. No danger of being unexpectedly Whammed by a department store’s PA if you’re not going into any department stores. It’s much easier to control one’s exposure to Last Christmas and festive songs in general, unless of course you’re the kind of big Elf-like booby who puts the Christmas songs radio channel on as soon as December begins.

So anyway, I was out of the running for Whamageddon by about 11am on December 1.

Another burgeoning Christmas tradition, and one which remains unaffected by lockdown, is the annual ‘should we censor Fairytale of New York‘ controversy. The song features, as I’m sure you know, an instance of the word that starts with F, rhymes with Taggart and is used as a homophobic slur, primarily in the USA. In recent years, radio stations have taken to bleeping the word out, or dropping the song from Christmas playlists altogether.

It’s worth noting that the word wasn’t picked up on as problematic upon the song’s release in 1987 or for some years afterwards, and this isn’t just because we lived in less inclusive times (although we did, for all that the 1980s thought it was the most right-on decade possible) but also because there wasn’t as much awareness, in the UK at least, of just how nasty a word that was in the American vernacular. Shane MacGowan, the song’s composer, has apparently said that he intended to invoke an earlier Irish usage of the word, which meant “workshy lazy person”.

I can’t definitively attest to the truth of this myself, being only one eighth Irish (a negligible degree of Irishness for a Scouser) but I do remember from my own childhood that my half-Irish grandma used to call me a “little f****t” when I was naughty. My old gran was a bit eccentric but I’m fairly sure she wasn’t casting disparaging aspersions on my sexual orientation when I was four. Certainly I recall being rather alarmed to find out, some years later, what Americans meant by that word.

The thing is, whether or not MacGowan meant any offence (and he himself has said that he’s okay with the word being omitted), how that word is primarily used is now known by pretty much everyone, and in my opinion dropping it out is a price worth paying to keep the song – one of the best Christmas songs ever written – in circulation.

When Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was destroyed this summer, it wasn’t about retroactively condemning Colston for his actions, so much as it was a recognition that the achievements he was being lauded for weren’t the kind of thing we wanted to laud anymore.

Similarly, it’s possible to exercise a modicum of consideration for the sensibilities of modern listeners without accusing Shane MacGowan of having been homophobic 33 years ago.

Oh my. Thirty-three years. I’m going to need a moment. Okay, that’s better.

Besides, there are far more lyrically dodgy Christmas songs out there. Have you ever actually looked at the words to Santa Claus Is Coming To Town? They’re TERRIFYING. If you read them out slowly in a gravelly voice they become the voice-over to a slasher movie trailer. Try it: “He SEES you when you’re sleeping… he KNOWS when you’re awake…