Let me set the scene: It’s a November morning, and after a candy high, you get out of bed and head towards class. You stop by a coffee shop, in need of caffeine, and patiently wait in line for a peppermint mocha latte when you hear the speaker playing that oh–so–familiar song, with its diva vocals, jingling instrumental, and never–ending sense of Christmas joy.
Unsurprisingly, the song at hand is the Christmas standard, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey. Released in 1994, this classic is younger than many of its Christmas contemporaries like “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” but still older than newer jingles “Santa Tell Me” and “Underneath The Tree.” Yet “All I Want For Christmas” transcends all, and is not only the best–selling Christmas song by a female artist, but also one of the best–selling songs of all time—with 16 million copies.
Despite the omnipotence of the song today, one might find it surprising that the idea of Carey doing a Christmas album, much less a Christmas song, was met with hesitance and even fear. The pop diva herself actually didn’t want to record a Christmas record, and Walter Afanasieff, the song’s co–writer, was afraid that it would prematurely end the singer’s career given that few contemporaries recorded Christmas albums. Plus, Carey had just ridden off the success wave from her last album Music Box, her best–selling album to date, so her next move had to be a strategic one to continue the trajectory of her career.
Tommy Mottola, Carey’s then–husband and the head of her label, was instrumental with the conception of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and its parent album, Merry Christmas. After some encouragement, Carey and Afanasieff got to writing and producing the song, reportedly taking only 15 minutes. To help capture the Christmas feel despite making the song in August, the holiday queen even embellished her home and studio with Christmas decor to ensure the festive cheer was captured in the essence of the song.
Perhaps it was because of her star power that the song was met with critical acclaim and success upon release. Described as “everything you would expect from a Mariah Carey record” in a 1994 review from Music Week, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Chart in the Christmas of the same year—signifying that the song resonated with the general public. Yet the same review comments: “... the industry may give it only grudging respect...” The song was, indeed, ineligible to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, the industry–standard, as it was not released in a physical CD format.
In more recent years, however, Carey seems to be turning around from her initial sentiments. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” became a staple in her tour setlists and holiday shows. She performed it at Christmas parades and Jingle Balls. She made Christmas specials and re–recordings, including an “Extra Festive” version and a “SuperFestive!” duet with Justin Bieber. Yet, every time she sings the song, she never loses the charm; she cements her staying power and her generational appeal, decades later.
In addition, through some rules changes with the Billboard charts, it seems that the song is getting bigger every year. First comes its official chart debut in 2000 at #83 following the removal of the “physical singles” rule. Then comes Billboard allowing recurrent songs, or previously departed entries, to re–enter the chart if it places above position 50. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” landed at a comfortable 29 and reached a new peak of 21 in 2013. With a little help from Carey herself, the song reached higher peaks every subsequent year and charted earlier and earlier in the holiday season. In 2018, Carey broke the record for single–day Spotify streams with 10.82 million, proving that the song adapted to the modern market. And finally, in 2019, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” was Carey’s 19th number–one single, a crowning achievement for an artist this far in her career. After nearly three decades of industry side–eye, the charts finally caught up to the Christmas staple.
At the end of the day, however, the staying power of the song is unprecedented. A simple song about wanting someone else for Christmas isn’t unique per se, and the lyrics aren’t Shakespearean. But the universality of the track, the idea that all Carey wants for Christmas is you, the audience, may be the reason why the song is so popular. When at times our world can be so financially–driven, maybe we all could learn a little from the Christmas queen herself: “Don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree.” She is appealing to the canonical function of Christmas: spending time with the people you love. Carey sings with sincerity, joy, exhilaration, and “a hint of longing,” effectively tapping into our emotions during the holiday season.
Maybe it’s the desire to feel this joy from the holiday season that leads us to keep hearing the song earlier and earlier, especially given the rise of political and social conflicts we’ve seen in the past few years. Ten years ago it was hard to imagine hearing this song in November, but today, as soon as the Thanksgiving decor comes down, Carey comes out of her yearly hibernation to bring us into several weeks worth of festive joy, away from all the troubles of the previous months. The pop icon herself has poked fun at the idea over the last two years, when on Nov. 1, Carey casts away Halloween and announces “It’s time!” for Christmas joy in festive Instagram videos. Not only has Carey adopted the prestigious role of Christmas queen, but she is fully aware of the positive impact this simple holiday song has and the lives it touches year after year. Carey and co., in a bit of a marketing genius, continue to promote the song annually through memes, merch, and holiday specials—only making the song more omnipresent during the winter months.
So this holiday season, when this song comes on during a holiday party, on the radio, or in a random store, don’t be afraid to sing along—even if it’s still November.