Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a good, old-fashioned singsong. Since time immemorial people have gathered around fireplaces, taken to the streets and switched on the radio to enjoy a festive melody and fill their hearts with good tidings. Unplug your iPhone, shift that Taylor Swift earworm from your brain and relax – we’re about to take you on a journey through the history of festive music, from traditional carols to chart-topping pop classics.
The Origin of Christmas Carols
Carols are an essential part of the Christmas experience – which makes it somewhat fitting that, like most Christmas traditions, they have their roots in pagan celebrations. Worshippers would sing and dance on the Winter Solstice each year to songs that were referred to as carols.
This tradition was adopted by the earliest Christian settlers and given a festive polish, particularly in Italy. As early as 129 AD a song entitled Angel’s Hymn would be used to mark the season, written and performed entirely in Latin. It wouldn’t be until the 15th Century that carols as we know them entered the public consciousness.
Rather than songs written in Latin and available only to those who spoke the language, it became increasingly popular for people to sing holy songs of praise in their native tongues all over the world. Lyrics obviously changed from country to country and person to person, but a prime example of this is I Saw Three Ships, which spun the narrative of Mary and Joseph encountering an array of different characters on their journey through Bethlehem.
Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power in the 17th Century put a stop to any public celebrations and singing of carols, not least because Christmas was abolished during his reign over the nation. As anybody that has ever had a song trapped in their head will know, however, you can’t keep a good ditty down – by the Victorian Era, Christmas carols had became a staple element of all things festive and have remained so ever since.
As anybody that has read our guide to A Very Victorian Christmas will know (so that’s all of you, right?), Christmas really arrived in Britain in a big way during the Victorian Era. This was when a great many of the melodies that we know and love came to be, and many have not changed tempo or content since this era. As carols became increasingly popular they were adopted and absorbed by the Christian faith, often sung in churches by worshipping choirs, and to this day you’ll be able to find a carol singing service close to you through the festive season. Many of the songs of this era are accompanied by a spiritual theme, but even jolly numbers such as Deck the Halls stem from this fascinating period of history.
It was during the Victorian Era that carol singing from door-to-door became increasingly popular. Poor people, in particular, would travel from home to home and hope that their empty food bowls would be filled by those who could spare some nourishment in exchange for a song – literally a case of singing for their supper. While Britons were enjoying all the fun of the festive season, however, the rest of Europe was not resting on their laurels, producing such evergreen carols as Silent Night, and our American friends gave us Jingle Bells in 1857 – though many churches refused to allow the song to be performed within their hallowed walls.
Following the growing success of carol singing, general Christmas music became more and more prevalent. The legend of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was first put to music in 1949, the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis saw Judy Garland insist that everybody viewing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and the eternal Bing Crosby rendition of White Christmas was released in 1942. At the time of writing, this is the highest-selling single in the world – which makes it curious that it has never topped the UK charts…
Dawn of the Music Charts
In the modern age of digital downloads, streaming and various other factors that you presumably require a PhD to fully understand, topping the singles charts is no longer quite the career pinnacle that it once was. Back in the day, however, earning the Christmas Number One single was a huge deal – and families would gather around the television set on Christmas Day to watch a special festive edition of Top of the Pops (Millenials, ask your parents what that means – just take our word for it when we say that show was a big deal until the turn of the century.)
The UK began to officially log sales and chart positions in November 1952, and the first ever Christmas Number One single was also the nation’s first Number One record, period. Keep that little nugget of useless information in your back pocket for a future pub quiz, you’ll thank us for it. Here in My Heart was the track in question, performed by American crooner Al Martino (who would later go on to find fame as an actor, most notably portraying Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather). Here in My Heart spent nine weeks at the top of the charts, setting a record that remained unbroken until Bryan Adams set hearts a-fluttering in 1991 with uber-ballad (Everything I Do) I Do it for You.
1955 saw the country’s first ever festive-themed Christmas chart-topper with Dickie Valentine’s cover of yuletide staple Christmas Alphabet (educational and entertaining!), while Harry Belafonte got in on the act two year’s later with an incarnation of Mary’s Boy Child. Closer in spirit to a carol than the song’s calypso-beat origins (Boney M. rectified this when they covered the track and reached Number One in 1978), Belafonte was the first artist to sell over a million copies of a single record in a year.
Cliff Richard is a national treasure (or musical terrorist, depending on your perspective) closely associated with Christmas singles, and alongside The Shadows he sat at the Top of the Pops on December 25th in 1960 with I Love You. This set the tone for the remainder of the 1960s, which saw the Christmas charts dominated by conventional pop powerhouses that outsold the competition without relying on yuletide themes. The Beatles enjoyed four festive Number Ones across the decade, while Elvis Presley, Tom Jones and Rolf Harris also got in on the act.
The Golden Age of the Christmas Number One
The 1970s was when the race for Christmas Number One as the great British public remembers it really began to take shape. Benny Hill’s famous ode to Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) weighed in at the top of the charts in 1971, becoming the first novelty record to achieve Christmas Number One status, while in 1973 the track that drives retail staff to commit hate crimes by September reached our ears. All together now – it’s Christmaaaaaas!
As for the remaining years in the decade … Mud bemoaned feeling Lonely This Christmas in ’74, Johnny Mathis enjoyed singing about When a Child Was Born in ’76, and as previously discussed, Boney M. brought a booty-shaking beat back to Mary’s Boy Child in ’78. The year prior to this, Paul McCartney and Wings topped the charts with Mull of Kintyre, which became the first single to shift 2,000 sales in the UK. Another noteworthy year was 1975, which was Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody hold onto to top spot as part of a nine-week run. Not only has that particular number been voted the nation’s favourite number one single in a number of polls, but when it retreated the feat at topped the charts in 1991 upon re-release it became the first (and to date only) song to reach Christmas Number One during two separate years.
By the 80s it was established that a Christmas Number One single was a rocket strap for a career, so it was hardly surprising that many artists got in on the act. The Human League filled as many stockings as they did dance floors with Don’t You Want Me in 1980 (there must have been a certain irony to countless people returning their copies for exchange on December 27th when they received multiple copies of the same song), and the Pet Shop Boys recorded a synth-pop version of Always on My Mind, originally performed live at a tribute concert to mark the untimely passing of Elvis Presley, in time for a festive release in 1987. Shakin’ Stevens got in on the act in 1985 with the irrepressibly jolly Merry Christmas Everyone, and Cliff Richard unleashed one of the most famous yuletide anthems of all time, Mistletoe and Wine, in 1988.
Of course, however, the decade of the 80s really belonged to the all-star Band Aid projects and their determination to feed the world; two different versions of Do They Know it’s Christmas? topped the charts in 1984 and 1989 (and again in 2004, with another line-up to celebrate the song’s twentieth anniversary).The original recording was the fastest-selling single in history until Elton John’s Candle in the Wind broke the record in 1997, suggesting that everybody, everywhere, was indeed fully aware that it was Christmas.
Cliff Richard shepherded in the 1990s with another festive Number One with Saviour’s Day, which set the scene for the remainder of the decade. Cartoon characters carved from plastic such as Mr. Blobby, Bob the Builder and Michael Jackson featured heavily over the next ten years, though plenty of pop stars got in on the act. The Spice Girls enjoyed three consecutive Number Ones between 1996-98, East 17 implored us to Stay Another Day in 1994 whilst dressed as Eskimos in one of the most bizarre videos of all time, Westlife looked down on the competition in 1999, and Whitney Houston laid waste to all before her in 1992 with I Will Always Love You. Sitting atop the charts for an eye-boggling ten weeks, this remains the bestselling single by a female artist in history.
Perhaps surprisingly, All I Want for Christmas is You never made it beyond Number Two in 1994, but that’s probably for the best. Mariah Carey claiming that she ‘doesn’t want a lot for Christmas’ is surely the kind of horrendously bald-faced lie that flies in the face of the festive season.
Modern Musical Merriment
Many people would consider the 1990s to be the end of an era with regard to truly great and memorable Christmas Number One singles, as the following decade saw the rise of Simon Cowell and The X-Factor – presumably considered to be a benevolent Santa Claus figure to his disciples and performers, and an unspeakable Grinch to all other music lovers that considered his show to be the televised equivalent of karaoke night at the Pig and Whistle. 2005 saw the first time as X-Factor winner reached the top of the charts for Christmas Day in the form of Shayne Ward’s That’s My Goal. This was actually Cowell and Co’s second bite of the cherry, as maiden X-Factor winner Steve Brookstein’s cover of Phil Collins’ Against All Odds was complete Number Two.
What? It ended the year second in the charts, behind the previously mentioned Band Aid 20 edition of Do They Know it’s Christmas?
X-Factor winners topped the festive charts for four of the next five years, with the run broken up by an online campaign from music lovers sick of Cowell’s vice-like grip on the charts. Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name may look like a bizarre choice of 2009’s Christmas Number One when devoid of context, but it was funny at the time – especially when vocalist Zack De La Rocha got a little over-excited during a live performance on Radio 5 in mid-afternoon and forgot to censor himself while announcing that, upon reflection, he had decided not to follow anybody else’s advice during the chorus and spat out several of the song’s seventeen F-bombs. This brought back fond memories of the song’s original release in 1993, when Bruno Brooks accidentally played the uncensored version on his Sunday teatime Radio 1 chart show. In a story to warm the festive cockles, however, the band donated their earnings from the success of the song to charity, while many of those that bought the single (which became the first ever song to top the charts based on digital downloads alone) also donated to homeless charity Shelter.
Since 2010, many people may be hard-pushed the name the Christmas Number One as the title no longer enjoys such musical prestige and is often the result of concentrated campaigning. Others have tried and failed to leap on the bandwagon started in 2009 and attempted to get more classic rock songs to the top of the charts, but lightning has failed to strike twice – we’ve had three more X-Factor winners and three charitable records that raised money for noble causes. And last year’s effort? Rockabye by Clean Bandit featuring Sean Paul and Anne-Marie, of course. You can virtually hear the sleigh bells ringing when we do much as mention the song’s name.
This brings our journey through the festive music of the past to a close. Have fond memories resurfaced from childhood’s past as a result? Are you choking on your turkey at the absence of The Pogues and their fabled Fairy Tale of New York?
Either way, do your vocal warm-ups and prepare yourself for another winter of contented harmonising with friends, family and any complete strangers that invite you to join in. This is the season to be jolly, after all, and it’s also a time for good will toward all men and women – even those that are utterly tone-deaf.