Why are Christmas Number 1’s still a thing?

As a child growing up in the 90s in the UK, Christmas was full of the same things every year. There’d be something starring Cliff Richard on the TV, Slade and Wizzard would be played so many times your ears started to bleed, and all eyes would be on the artists aiming to become the official UK Christmas Number 1.

I really don’t know why ‘Christmas Number 1’ became such a big thing here, especially when it doesn’t seem to be a thing anywhere else. In the US, the chart is actually a week behind, meaning it’s hard to pinpoint a ‘Christmas Number 1’.

A quick check on Wikipedia shows it’s Slade and Wizzard to blame for creating the concept of a battle for the Christmas Number 1, their (still horrendously irritating songs) ‘Merry Xmas Everyone’ and ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ competing for the top spot in 1973. Slade won in the end, but the collateral damage was that releasing a festive hit could elevate sales for that one week and for as long as any of us can remember ‘Christmas Number 1’ has been a thing.

When I say it’s a ‘thing’, it’s telling that it now seems to be the only way that a #1 song will be newsworthy outside of the industry itself. Even in recent years when streaming and the changes charts companies have been forced to make to prevent Sheeranageddon where he had 17/20 of the Top 20 songs on the chart one week, it still doesn’t feel like these stories are shared in the same way as Christmas number 1 battles are.

‘Festive’ hits made up nearly all of the Christmas Number 1s for the following few decades, the occasional random current hit that hung on for that week – ‘Don’t You Want Me’ or ‘Another Brick In The Wall Pt2’ for instance – not breaking up a run of Christmassy hits that we now hear every year when doing our shopping. Some of these chart races must have been more exciting than others, but the song that set a new standard for what a Christmas Number 1 could be undoubtedly kicked off a new template for these moving forward.

‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ became the biggest selling song of all time in the UK within just a few weeks, of course due to its position as a charity release. It sold 3 million(!) copies in December of 1984 alone, with Wham! right behind at number two, with equally huge sales thanks to the duo donating all of that song’s revenue to the Band Aid cause too. Whatever you think about the song (‘Thank god it’s them instead of you’ isn’t exactly Bono’s finest moment), Band Aid completely changed the discussion around Christmas Number 1 and end of year song releases in general.

Skip ahead to the 90s and the festiveness of the hits started to dry up entirely. After 1990 when Cliff Richard hit the top spot with ‘Saviours Day’, the only genuine Christmas themed song that has topped the chart on Christmas Day was the 20th anniversary version of the Band Aid hit (the ill-fated Band Aid 30 from a few years ago didn’t actually hang onto Number 1 until the day itself).

The rest have been popular boybands/girlbands of the era, East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ being a stellar example of wearing big coats in the Christmas video, while Spice Girls took the top spot for three years in a row, 2 Become 1 surely one of the all-time greatest Christmas Number 1 hits.

Strange cover versions of seemingly random songs also make up the list, Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman doing ‘Somethin’ Stupid’, or Gary Jules’ version of ‘Mad World’, for instance. More charity covers are on the list too, which always feel to me like the most-deserving of any of the songs to make the top spot, as well as a slurry of Reality TV assisted number 1s.

Girls Aloud made the top spot with the ‘still a banger’ Sound of the Underground, but it’s The X Factor that sent 7 winners to Christmas Number 1 that sort of ‘ruined’ the chart for the general public.

Even the songs that didn’t manage it sold so many copies while battling it out. 2009’s Christmas Number 1 battle between Joe McElderry’s Miley Cyrus cover and Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’ feels like a fever dream to imagine now, but it was one of the first examples of an internet fuelled ‘protest’ against the reality machine that actually worked. It’s never happened like that ever since, but it was the last scrappy battle for the top spot that we’ve had.

Now looking to more recent years, the landscape for ‘Christmas Music’ has never been more helpful to those older hits. Streaming has become a boon to those yearly standard hits, helping Mariah, Wham!, The Pogues and Shakin’ Stevens return to the top 10 every year.

Streaming is so separate to buying a song though, when it takes hundreds of streams to count as a sale, you have to rely on people actually listening to these songs. The charity records that have been getting to Christmas Number 1 have been mostly based on pure sales, where you can buy it for 99p, but not actually have to listen to it. It means current hits from Ed Sheeran, Clean Bandit and Justin Bieber have been so far ahead on streaming that a ‘festive’ hit only stood a chance against the latter’s after he told his own fans to buy the NHS Choir’s song instead.

Ladbaby’s first bid for the top spot two years ago with a sausage-roll themed version of Starship’s ‘We Built This City’ did feel like a joke, but somehow managed to do it in the end, the most exciting and closest race for the top spot in recent memory. But no-one was actually listening to the song past a few ironically. They managed it again last year and are likely to become only the second artist to have three Christmas Number 1s in a row (after the Spice Girls), but everything changed again just a few weeks ago.

The impossible happened as Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ overcame the handicap that the Official Charts Company place on old hits to claim the Number 1 for the first time. Christmas was still two weeks away as well!

For those who aren’t chart-obsessed like me, songs are placed on Accelerated Chart Ratio after 10 weeks if their sales are not growing, which means Streams count for half of the sales they usually do. Songs that are at least three years old have no way of getting out of this ACR ruling and so Christmas hits are usually constrained by this handicap. In 2020 though, streaming has taken off so much that these songs are making up the difference and filling the chart anyway.

Why does this matter for the Christmas Number 1? Because if the rules stay as they are, we could easily end up with the same standard hits, the ones that the public are actually choosing to listen to every year claiming the Christmas Number 1. Last Christmas could finally do it, Michael Buble or The Pogues could get a Number 1 single, too. Amazon could inflate their numbers with their exclusives that play whenever you tell Alexa to ‘Play Christmas Music’ again.

The playing field has evened out and the ‘race’ for Christmas Number 1 is now so complicated and full of numbers and stats to consider. Without ACR hampering the classics, Mariah would be so far ahead as the #1 every year that a race would be pointless, on ‘sales’ that wouldn’t have made the top 100 a decade ago. The idea of being the ‘Christmas Number 1’ might be over before we know it, which might just be the last time the chart is mentioned outside of the industry bubble.

Words by Sam Atkins

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