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The reason why it took so long for Christmas songs to rule the charts


Don’t look now, but it’s officially Christmas. If you’ve forgotten to get your gifts, it’s officially too late to have Amazon rush you something. If you haven’t gotten plastered on spiked eggnog, what are you waiting for? If you’re Jewish… mazel tov. December 25th is right around the corner and you know what that means: Christmas songs are once again ruling the charts around the world.

If you’re in the UK, it will be a tight race this year. LadBaby, a comedy YouTuber and blogger, has teamed up with Elton John and Ed Sheeran in a bid to land their fourth successive festive number one. ‘Last Christmas’ is threatening at number three, but Adele’s unstoppable ‘Easy On Me’ could have another surge and be the Christmas number one this year.

If you’re in America, this is now a foregone conclusion: Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ will outsell and outstream every other song by exponential amounts. This is the way it has been since 2019, a time when the song first ascended to the number one spot. 2020 almost saw Carey get unseated by Taylor Swift’s ‘Willow’, but on December 25th, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ was still officially the number one song in America before ‘Willow’ swooped in the next day to claim the top spot.

In fact, if you look at both the US and UK charts, there are tons of Christmas songs all over the place. Brenda Lee’s ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ has a prominent spot on both, including its remarkable current position sitting at number two in America. The British prefer The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ and Michael Buble’s ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ while Americans are listening to Bobby Helms’ ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and Burt Ives’ ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’. Different Christmas strokes for different yuletide folks, I suppose.

But hold on: Christmas songs are popular every year. Why is it only now that these seasonal songs are being represented on the singles charts? Well, it has mostly to do with new rule changes that both the US and UK charts have implemented just over the past two years. These changes were put in place to better reflect the modern way of taking in music, and of course, that means streaming.

So streaming has been weighted higher in the past two years, explaining why ‘Last Christmas’ and ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ finally got to reach number one. But those songs were popular when they were first released too. Why now? Both actually have some fascinating stories behind their trips to number one.

George Micheal in the hit Wham! video. (Credit: YouTube)

Poor ‘Last Christmas’. For a number of years, Wham held the record for having the highest-selling single that never reached number one on the UK charts, but that now belongs to Maroon 5’s ‘Moves Like Jagger’, to my eternal disappointment. For its initial release in 1984, the song was held at number two by another holiday song: Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. Over the next 35 years, ‘Last Christmas’ entered the UK top 40 15 different times, and landed in the top 10 every year since 2016. But what it really took was a more conscious effort to heavily favour streaming numbers for the song to finally hit the top spot. When it did, Wham had a new record – the longest time between a song’s release and its peak at number one, with 26 years between the original single’s release and its topping of the UK charts.

As for ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, there are actually a lot more chart shenanigans to account for. The Billboard Hot 100 has historically been a quagmire of bizarre rules and technicalities to manoeuvre, and even though Mariah Carey had an immediate all-time classic on her hands when ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ was first released in 1994, it wasn’t originally eligible for inclusion on the chart. That’s because it wasn’t a physically released single — but that would change soon enough. Billboard created a whole slew of charts to track radio play and digital sales during the 2000s, but they also made a separate chart for songs that popped up yearly: the Re-currents chart.

‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ bounced around to all these charts before Billboard finally started to combine most of their parameter and integrate them into the Hot 100. By 2019, the chart finally gave streaming a greater amount of weight, and subsequently ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ finally, and perhaps inevitably, hit number one. Carey broke the American record for longest trip to number one with 25 years between the song’s release and its ascension to the top spot, but if Billboard wasn’t so finicky with its criteria, it likely would have its number one years ago.

Today, the combined metrics of streaming, radio play, and physical sales (which Billboard disproportionally favours, and record companies get around by re-releasing their songs psychically every year) mean that Christmastime really does belong to Christmas songs. More so than any other time of year, Christmas shows how linear time has no effect on what’s popular on the charts. Songs that are over six decades old have appeared on modern singles charts, and the trend is unlikely to change any time soon. It’s happening for everyone, but Wham and Mariah Carey were the leaders who showed just how lucrative, and now how timeless, the holiday season can truly be.

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