Part of an ongoing series of 29Secrets stories, taking a deep dive into the history of legendary beauty products and iconic fashion and pop culture moments…
By Christopher Turner
Illustration by Michael Hak
Mariah Carey’s hit song “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has been warming just about everyone’s heart since its initial release back in 1994. Written and produced by Carey and then-collaborator Walter Afanasieff, the feel-good holiday song was released as the lead single from Carey’s fourth studio album and first holiday album, Merry Christmas. Interestingly, when it was first released, the song didn’t make it higher than No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay chart. Hard to imagine these days, considering it’s almost impossible to even think of the holiday season without hearing Carey’s quintessential holiday bop enough times to last you several Christmases. Simply walk into any store this winter and I can almost guarantee you will hear it at least once.
“I’ve been very lucky to have written many hits like ‘Hero’ and ‘One Sweet Day’ with Mariah Carey, but ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ is the cherry on top,” Afanasieff said in 2014, 20 years after its release. “I never imagined it would be something that we’d still be talking about – but I’m glad that we are. It definitely helped feed and clothe my three children!”
Now, almost 30 years after its release, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” continues to dominate radio waves, make headlines and break records (for example: did you know that it’s officially the most-downloaded holiday single of all time?). As it turns out, the single has a ton of history and fun facts to go along with it. So, in the spirit of the holiday season, here’s absolutely everything that you could possibly want to know – including the sad inspiration – about one of the most beloved holiday songs of all time.
Getting in the holiday spirit
Carey first rose to fame in 1990 with the release of her eponymous debut album, Mariah Carey. Following the success of that album, she released her Emotions album the following year, and her Music Box album in 1993. With three hit records under her belt (and an armful of awards), Carey and her management at Columbia Records – including Carey’s then-husband, Tommy Mottola, head of Columbia’s parent label Sony Music Entertainment – began planning her next steps. Before the end of 1993, the group discussed recording a Christmas album, but hesitated, because at the time such albums were typically released when artists’ careers were waning.
Afanasieff, Carey’s songwriting partner at the time, said: “Back then, you didn’t have a lot of artists with Christmas albums. It wasn’t a known science at all back then, and there was nobody who did new, big Christmas songs. So we were going to release it as kind of an everyday, ‘Hey, you know, we’re putting out a Christmas album. No big deal.’”
Carey was hesitant about the idea of a Christmas album, but after Mottola persisted, production started. The record label initially thought the album would just be a collection of covers, but Carey got inspired and in no time she and Afanasieff began writing and composing original songs for the album, which was set to be called Merry Christmas.
The first song that Carey and Afanasieff wrote for the album was the ballad-y “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time),” followed by a more gospel-inspired “Jesus Born On This Day.” Then the pair started to write a request from Mottola: a Phil Spector-inspired, old rock ’n roll, ’60s-sounding Christmas song.
“I started playing some rock ’n roll piano and started boogie woogie-ing my left hand. And that inspired Mariah to come up with the melodic [sung] ‘I don’t want a lot for Christmas,’” Afanasieff told Billboard in 2014. “And then we started singing and playing around with this rock ’n roll boogie song, which immediately came out to be the nucleus of what would end up being ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You.’”
Carey and Afanasieff came up with the initial chords, structure and melody for the song in about 15 minutes (yes, 15!). (Asked about this in a 2019 interview with Yahoo! Carey said, “I don’t know that it was exactly 15 minutes, but it was pretty quick.”) “It’s definitely not ‘Swan Lake,’” Afanasieff told the New York Post in 2014. “But that’s why it’s so popular – because it’s so simple and palatable!”
Afanasieff and Carey tinkered away with the music and lyrics until the summer of 1994. After attempting to record the song in California with a live band, an unsatisfied Afanasieff took matters into his own hands, programming every aspect of the song, except for the vocals, by himself with a keyboard. But, he said, when it came time to record Carey’s main vocal in New York, “that’s when we first hear her at the microphone singing, and the rest is history.” In fact, that August, Carey decorated the home she shared with Mottola in New York with Christmas decorations, to help get her in the holiday spirit.
Most of the music on the final track was programmed on a computer by Afanasieff, who produced the bass, drums, keyboard and festive sound effects. The only things added to Afanasieff’s arrangement were a little guitar and the vocals of Carey and her backing singers: Dann Huff played guitar, and Carey was backed up on vocals by Melonie Daniels and sisters Kelly and Shanrae Price.
Afanasieff had no idea the pair had created a hit. In fact, in 2014 he recounted to ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) that he had initially disliked the song, with its schmaltzy chords and vocal melody that recalled “a practice interval” used by singers and musicians to warm up. But “keeping that [chordal] tradition – and then the oversimplified melody – I guess because it was that, made it so easily palatable for the whole world to go, ‘Oh. Yeah, I can’t get that out of my head.’”
Of course, Afanasieff was underselling his own work. In 2015, Slate undertook an extensive analysis of the harmony behind “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” counting at least 13 distinct chords in the song, including a minor subdominant chord, which is also found – crucially – in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” In short, despite its presumed simplicity, the song is a relatively sophisticated piece of pop songwriting, and Slate author Adam Ragusea argues that Carey’s holiday staple is the only Christmas song written in the past half-century worthy of inclusion in the Great American Songbook.
But it was Carey’s knowledge of music history that made the song’s unique mix of elements work. “I listen to a lot of old R&B and I listen to a lot of gospel music for inspiration,” she said in 1994. “I also listen to the radio, and I know every song on the radio because I’m a fanatic about that.”
Not so happy inspirations
“I’m a very festive person and I love the holidays. I’ve sung Christmas songs since I was a little girl. I used to go Christmas carolling,” Carey said at the time of the song’s release. It was that love for the holidays that drove her to give the Merry Christmas album and “All I Want For Christmas Is You” a shot. The season was never a great time for Carey when she was growing up, so she decided to write about the perfect Christmas instead.
Carey told Out Magazine in 2014 that she had a “tough-as-nails” childhood in Long Island, New York. She was born to an Irish mother and a Black and Afro-Venezuelan father, who divorced early on. As a kid, Carey experienced poverty and struggled with her racial identity.
“My mom chose to live in predominantly white neighbourhoods, where people had more money than us, and I didn’t fit in there, or in an all-Black neighbourhood when my parents were together; as a mixed couple, they had problems there. So there was not one safe place,” she told Pitchfork in November 2018.
“A lot of intense stuff happened to me when I was a kid, that people who grew up with money or with families that weren’t fully dysfunctional will never quite understand,” she also said. “And then being biracial on top of it, and having no place to really fit in.”
Carey opened up to USA Today in 2019 about how her childhood shaped the song. She said she always dreamed of having the perfect Christmas, and “put every ounce of longing for that perfect moment” in the record.
“I really started with thinking, ‘What are all the things I think about at Christmas?’ Lights, presents, stockings, fireplaces,” Carey explained. “I’ve always loved Christmas so much my entire life, but I grew up not having a lot of money and not being able to experience it like the other kids did.
“I wanted Christmas to be perfect, but for a lot of different reasons, it didn’t always end up working out well, coming from such a dysfunctional family,” she continued. “So I think when I wrote it, I just put every ounce of longing for that perfect moment in it.”
Carey returned to the same theme during a virtual interview on The Bobby Bones Show in 2021. “I had kind of a tough upbringing, so we never had a lot of things that most kids had,” she recalled. “I really wanted that perfect Christmas. It was just in my mind and it always got ruined.”
Carey’s Merry Christmas album was released by Columbia Records on October 28, 1994, with critics comparing the album, and in particular its style, to The Beach Boys, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder.
On November 14, 1994, the label released three songs from Merry Christmas to US radio stations as promotional singles: “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (to Top 40 and adult contemporary radio stations), “Jesus Born On This Day” (Christian and gospel stations) and “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)” (R&B stations).
“All I Want For Christmas Is You” was considered a modest hit when it was first released, and the song peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that December. A music video accompanying the release of the song was shot in the style of a home movie using Super 8 film; it was directed and filmed by Carey (the man dressed up as Santa is none other than Mottola).
While “All I Want For Christmas Is You” was just modestly popular when it first came out, it has reached new heights in recent years. In the 2000s, Billboard changed its rules to allow songs to chart at any time on downloads and streams; as a result, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” eventually returned to the charts, and it has re-entered the Top 40 every year since 2007. Thanks to the rise of streaming and the song’s increasing popularity, it reached a new peak in December 2018, climbing to No. 7 on the Billboard chart. In 2019, it hit the top spot, and then went on to reach No. 1 again in 2020 and 2021 – and it shows no signs of slowing down.
When the song reached No. 1 for the third year in a row in 2021, Carey said in a voice note on Twitter, “This type of news, it’s never like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so bored of this news.’ To have another Billboard Hot 100 with a song that means so much to me, I can’t even. I can’t. I literally don’t know what to say.”
Of course, the song’s more recent success has spilled outside of Billboard’s charts. The holiday hit is Spotify’s most-streamed Christmas song of all time, with more than 602 million plays on the streaming service alone, while the original music video has had more than 733 million views on YouTube since it was uploaded to the platform in 2009, years after its initial MTV release. The song also became the first holiday ringtone to be certified double platinum with more than two million sales.
With global sales of over 16 million copies, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is Carey’s biggest international hit, and the 11th bestselling single of all time. It’s also made her a ton of money.… By 2017, it had reportedly earned $60 million in royalties, according to a report by The Economist. And, of course, that was five years ago. Streaming has only gotten more popular, and the song has now reached No. 1 three times since then – so that dollar amount would be significantly higher in 2022. Of course, no matter how much the song earns from royalties, Carey herself isn’t pocketing all of it. But it’s safe to say it’s bringing in millions of dollars annually, nearly three decades after its initial release.
Embracing the success
Almost 30 years after its release, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is firmly established as a modern classic. The song re-enters Billboard’s Holiday 100 Chart every year and, as Billboard’s associate director of charts/radio Gary Trust reveals, “It’s Carey’s best-selling download of all of her songs: 2.8 million sold since Nielsen Music began tracking sales in the early 2000s.”
Despite the song’s enduring success, Afanasieff hasn’t heard from Carey since they worked together on 1997’s Butterflyalbum, after which she decided to explore a more R&B-influenced direction.
“We had a falling out,” Afanasieff says of his former collaborator. “I would have hoped that in 20 years, she would have knocked on my door – but she hasn’t, so…”
As for Carey, while she hasn’t brought up Afanasieff in years, she has never shied away from embracing her biggest hit. Reflecting on the song’s success recently, Carey said that seeing people’s enthusiastic reactions year after year gives her “goosebumps,” and that she’s glad people enjoy her song since it helps put her in a “festive mood.”
It’s true… Mariah, all we want for Christmas is you!
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