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24 December 2021updated 04 Oct 2023 12:17pm

The Covid-19 pandemic made us fall in love with Christmas songs

Our data team has tracked the performance of nearly 200 merry tunes released since the turn of the millennium.

By Nicu Calcea and Josh Rayman

When is it too early to start listening to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”? Never, the singer suggests in a video she posted on Twitter on 1 November, in which she ceremoniously smashes three Halloween pumpkins with a baseball bat that are carved to spell out “IT’S NOT TIME”, as her 1994 hit starts playing in the background.

There is a reason Carey was advertising her song nearly two months before Christmas Day. Last year, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” reached the number one spot in the British charts for the first time, 26 years after its release.

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When it came out in 1994, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” became an instant hit but failed to reach the number one spot in the UK radio charts, losing out to East 17’s “Stay Another Day .

The song virtually dropped out of the top 100 most listened to Christmas singles list in the years after, until it re-emerged in 2007, reaching number four on the radio charts. While it stayed near the top of the chart, it didn’t match that performance until a decade later, when it came back into the limelight.

In 2020, the first Christmas spent under pandemic restrictions, Mariah Carey’s song began climbing the charts far earlier in the year than ever before and reached the coveted number one position for the first time.

The song hasn’t quite made it to the top spot this year yet, being pushed out by Ed Sheeran and Elton John’s newly released “Merry Christmas”, Adele’s “Easy On Me” and Wham’s “Last Christmas”. Nevertheless, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was played earlier this year than in any year except 2020,and it still has time to reach the top spot.

Bur Carey’s hit is not the only one climbing the charts in recent years. Wham’s “Last Christmas”, the Pogues “Fairytale of New York” and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” are among many Christmas hits that have increasingly become listeners favourites, particularly over the past two years.

We’ve identified nearly 200 Christmas songs that have made it into the Official Singles Chart Top 100 since 2000. Visualising their performance over time reveals how we’ve been listening to an increasing number of merry tunes, and have started doing so earlier in the year.

How did we get here? What is it that has made “All I Want for Christmas Is You” so recognisable and one of the most popular songs of all time?

Music critics have attributed the song’s popularity to different factors, including its festive spirit, Carey’s own attempts to make the song popular and its inclusion in the 2003 romantic-comedy Love Actually.

But while “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is by now one of the most notable markers of the start of the Christmas season, our analysis shows it is part of a bigger trend.

“A Christmas Number One is a kind of commercial goal that many ambitious — and usually deluded — recording artists have aimed at,” says Tom Robinson, a BBC Radio 6 host and singer-songwriter of his own chart-topping singles.

For decades, people have observed what has come to be known as the “Christmas creep”, a perceived phenomenon of the Christmas season starting earlier each year. The trend was even satirised in 1974 in an episode of the children’s show Peanuts, in which the characters discover that a store has put their Christmas displays up in the middle of April, warning shoppers that there were only 246 days left until Christmas.

While we may still be a long way from a true Christmas in July, holiday consumerism has indeed been spreading across the calendar. Two in five Americans now do their Christmas shopping in October, while supply chain concerns over the past two years have prompted shoppers to stock up on gifts even earlier than usual.

“It’s part of the same syndrome that sees Halloween ramped up into something that requires purchases of food and fancy dress costumes, masks, and spooky cobwebs, plastic pumpkin ornaments and which lasts for several weeks,” explains Robinson.

“We all buy into this idea of Christmas, me included, that mounting sense of something big coming up over the horizon.

“It’s become fetishised, to the extent that many people would literally prefer to risk allowing a life-threatening virus to overwhelm our health services and cause thousands of preventable deaths than to risk ‘cancelling Christmas’”.

The increasingly early nature of the festivities is hard to escape, with the Oxford Street Christmas lights being switched on in November, TV stations shifting their holiday programming to earlier and celebrities spreading the holiday cheer months before the Christmas season should officially start.

Christmas creep accelerated in 2020, as Britons were forced to spend it under strict lockdown restrictions. For many, putting up the Christmas tree a bit earlier than usual was an excuse to bring some much-needed joy into their lives. Artists, most of which have seen their revenues from live events dry up during the pandemic, have concentrated their efforts on boosting their digital offerings. Global shortages of goods such as video game consoles also pushed shoppers to look for the perfect gift well in advance.

While not everyone enjoys Christmas tunes, surveys show that there are more Britons who like hearing them in shops than those who dislike them.

“When we’re listening to music, we’re always finding associations between the sounds and our long-term memories,” explains Psyche Loui, the director of the Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Lab.

Robinson agrees: “It’s a kind of mass hysteria that has been steadily growing year by year across all our lives – definitely not just in the world of music.

“Perhaps it’s partly because as adults we’re becoming more infantilised — as we seek gratification to distract ourselves from engaging with a world that’s more frightening and harder to understand.”

If Christmas songs can remind us of better times, it is perhaps no coincidence that 2020 was the year when they really took off?

Notes on methodology

We collected weekly rankings from the Official Singles Chart Top 100, which are based on official sales of albums and tracks, downloads, audio streams and video streams.

We then classified whether a song is a Christmas song based on two crowd-sourced lists on Wikipedia, as well as based on whether the song titles match a list of keywords such as Christmas, Xmas, Santa, etc.

The Official Charts started including streaming figures in its calculations in 2014, which could potentially affect how Christmas songs are represented in the rankings. Our analysis, however, doesn’t show any significant deviation from 2013 to 2014.

Streaming has been given another boost in the calculations in 2019, though the new methodology would have favoured new hits rather than Christmas classics.

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