All I want for Christmas is a number one hit

No. 1: Mariah Carey has made around £45m from her Christmas hit. © Mariah Carey Instagram

Why are Christmas songs so popular? They drive some people mad, yet they come back year after year and achieve huge sales – and one musicologist argues that some possess real merit.

Pamela Lutalo and her fellow members of the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choir could not quite believe it. There they were at Britain’s most famous recording studio, Abbey Road, singing with Justin Bieber. For the doctors, nurses and other NHS staff, it could not have been a further cry from the hospital wards where they had worked throughout the pandemic.

The song was a remix of Bieber’s song Holy, and it is one of several hot contenders for this year’s Christmas number one. The seeds of the collaboration were sown five years ago when the choir’s recording of Bridge Over You was competing for the top spot with Bieber’s Love Yourself. When Bieber learnt of the situation, he selflessly encouraged his fans to download his rivals’ song rather than his.

“Justin Bieber helped make our dreams come true in 2015 and he’s doing the same this year,” said the choir’s leader, Caroline Smith. “We really can’t thank him enough for the chance to work with him on this wonderful, uplifting song.”

Pamela Lutalo called Holy “a song of appreciation to families, friends, colleagues and community who have provided encouragement and support to people during the pandemic”. All proceeds from the song will go to NHS charities.

There is a long tradition of seasonal recordings for charity. But whether or not the aim is to raise money for a good cause, the Christmas number-one slot is keenly competed for by some of music’s biggest stars.

A strong rival to Holy is Mariah Carey’s version of All I Want for Christmas Is You, which is currently number one in the UK. Recorded in 1994, and re-released several times, it has sold 16 million copies over the years, making it one of the most successful singles ever – though it is still a long way behind the all-time leader, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, which has reached the 50 million mark.

Also in the frame this year are LadBaby’s Don’t Stop Me Eatin’, Liam Gallagher’s All You’re Dreaming Of and Robbie Williams’s Can’t Stop Christmas.

Successful Christmas singles are major money-spinners because they get played constantly every year. In Nick Hornby’s novel About A Boy, the main character lives entirely off the royalties from a terrible song by his father called Santa’s Super Sleigh.

Some people bracket Christmas records in general with dross of this kind. But the classical pianist and composer Stephen Hough believes they are wrong to do so.

“The truly important message of Christmas,” he writes, “and what makes it so perennially touching, is its celebration of goodness and simplicity.” Traditional carols capture this spirit, but so can secular Christmas songs, “because they share the same values of benevolence and generosity”.

This is true even of jokey songs. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer shows that “a defect can be the very thing most useful and lovable. Such a reversal of human wisdom is one of the things that makes Christmas so powerful.”

Why are Christmas songs so popular?

Stocking rocking

Some say that at Christmas we are less discerning about what we listen to. We want something to get us into the festive mood, and songs do that more quickly and effectively than anything else. They also get non-stop promotion: radio stations and shops play them all the time, and record companies do whatever they can to cash in by persuading their artists to make Christmas singles and albums.

Others argue that music encapsulates the true spirit of Christmas. In the words of Stephen Hough, it is “a bringer of life, of light, of healing. It can seem to give wings to our spirits.” This is particularly true of carols, but can also apply to non-religious songs. Charity recordings wonderfully combine the joy of music with the seasonal impulse to help those in need.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite Christmas song or carol, and why?
  2. In the 17th Century the Puritans banned everything to do with Christmas, including carols. If you were asked to ban one aspect of a modern Christmas, what would it be?

Activities

  1. Write a Christmas song, using either an existing tune or one of your own.
  2. Design a cover for a Christmas album by your favourite singer or band.

Some People Say...

“A rich man without charity is a rogue; and perhaps it would be no difficult matter to prove that he is also a fool.”

Henry Fielding (1707 - 1754), English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the most important seasonal charity song ever was Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? It was written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia in 1984, and an unprecedented line-up of stars took part in the recording, including Bono, Sting and George Michael. Together with the Live Aid concert which followed, it raised over £100m. It also inspired a song by American artists, We Are The World, which raised $50m.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the BBC was right to censor The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Christmas song, Fairytale of New York. It includes a drunken exchange of insults in which a woman calls a man a “faggot”: an offensive term for a gay person. On Radio 1 this has been changed to “haggard”; the songwriter, Shane McGowan, maintains that the woman’s dialogue “is as accurate as I could make it, but she is not intended to offend. She is just supposed to be an authentic character”.

Word Watch

Abbey Road
A studio in St John’s Wood, London. The Beatles named an album after it, and were photographed for the cover walking across a pedestrian crossing outside, which is still a place of pilgrimage for fans.
White Christmas
Written by Irving Berlin, it first featured in the film Holiday Inn. Bing Crosby did not think it very special at the time, simply saying: "I don't think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
Nick Hornby
An English writer who was a teacher before making his name with Fever Pitch, a book about his obsession with Arsenal FC.
Dross
Rubbish. In Old English it meant the scum which forms on the surface of molten metal.
Perennially
Always. A perennial plant is one which blossoms again every year.
Secular
Non-religious. It derives from the Latin word “saeculum”, meaning a generation or century. Because of the Christian belief that God exists outside time, it came to be used of things that are worldly rather than spiritual.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Written by Johnny Marks, it was a Christmas number one for Gene Autry in 1949. His version sold 12 million copies.

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