Christmas music is an unforgettable staple of the holiday season: every December, pop charts and public venues are flooded by songs accented by jingle bells and soft triangle strikes, reminding the world that Christmas is around the corner. These three songs in particular are some of the most well-beloved around the world.
This song is better known not by it’s catchy, sing-along chorus, but rather by its turbulent backstory: in 1983, a famine had hit the nation of Ethiopia, a famine that would leave 1.2 million people dead by 1985. In 1984, musician Bob Geldof, shocked by the scenes coming out of Ethiopia, resolved to raise money to relieve the beleaguered nation. He enlisted himself and Midge Ure, frontman of the band Ultravox, to recruit as many popular British and Irish artists to the cause as possible. Vogue artists like Sting, Phil Collins, and Boy George, among others, eventually joined Geldof and Ure, in a supergroup which was christened Band Aid. Band Aid’s primary purpose was to produce one hit song and market it using the popularity of the artists in the group, with the hope that the song could generate copious revenue, which Band Aid intended to donate to charity.
However, in their aim to produce a charity hit, Band Aid faced copious challenges: first, the studio they used only gave them 24 hours to record and master the song, which posed a problem as some members of the group were late: famously, Boy George had to be flown in by Concorde from New York and brought to the studio at 6 p.m. to sing his lines. Nevertheless, Band Aid pulled through, producing a fully mastered record in November 1984. Second, once the song became an instant hit, selling over one million records in the first week and outselling all other singles in the singles chart put together, the British government refused to exempt the song’s revenues from VAT, despite the fact that all its proceeds were to go to charity. Eventually, amid overwhelming public outrage, the government budged, donating all the VAT collected back into charity.
Jingle Bells is an undisputed Christmas classic, which finds itself in the coveted position of being the first song one thinks of when prompted to list famous Christmas songs. This song was first composed by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, and popularised in a famous minstrel performance in the same year. In 1889, the song was the first Christmas song to be recorded, which put it miles ahead of its competition and solidified it in the public conscience.
However, the popular rendition of the song is not the same as that in Pierpont’s original piece: firstly, the original song was not called Jingle Bells but One Horse Open Sleigh; secondly, One Horse Open Sleigh had several lyrical differences to the song we know today: “O’er the fields we go” used to be “O’er the hills we go,” and “Oh! What fun it is to ride” was first written down as “Oh! What sport it is to ride.” In any case, the changes in the song’s content are unsurprising: the song was a lazy conglomerate of other people’s work, with the most easily exploitable lines and music ripped from other songs, which made the song as a whole pliable to change. According to researchers, the song was not so much a creative venture as a financial one.
Becoming a #1 in Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2019, All I Want for Christmas is You has become one of the most recent additions to the pantheon of classic Christmas anthems. It was first conceived in 1994, and has reached the charts every December since that very year.
At first, the song was in peril of not existing at all: at the time the idea of Carey doing a Christmas album was pushed around at her record label, Columbia Records, she was at the peak of her career, having released the hit album Music Box in 1993. Columbia Records was reluctant to let Carey make a Christmas album, for it was a route traditionally considered to be the hallmark of an artist coming to an end of their career, and thus potentially harmful for Carey’s climb to stardom. Thankfully, Carey’s husband, Tommy Mottola, was the head of Sony Music Entertainment, which was the parent company of Columbia Records; this gave Carey sufficient influence in persuading the label to let her record a Christmas album.
Recording for Merry Christmas, the album in which the song appears, began in August of 1994. Due to Christmas being rather far away at the time, Carey feared that she would not sound authentic unless she immersed herself in the Christmas spirit, leading her to decorate her New York apartment as if it were Christmas. However, despite the early start, it only took Carey and her recording partner, Walter Afanasieff, fifteen minutes to compose and write the song, and only another week or two to perfect it.