What does it take to make a Christmas number one? More than just sleigh bells.
It may seem like the charts have been a fixture of our lives for ages, but they are only 70 years old. The UK singles chart started on 14 November 1952, published first by the New Musical Express (NME). Now they have moved from the results of a select pool of stores reporting their sales figures to all sales, downloads and streams.
Getting to the top in the chart is a huge achievement, but getting the Christmas number one is even more prestigious. Watching Top of the Pops on 25 December to see who made it to the number one slot, is the biggest pop race of the year, and as part of the festivities as turkey and sprouts.
The first Christmas number one in the UK was also the first number one in the new singles chart as well – Al Martino, with ‘Here in my heart.’
The song stayed at number one for nine consecutive weeks, something only four other Christmas number ones have managed, and was only beaten in longevity by Whitney Houston’s version of ‘I will always love you’ which managed 10 weeks over the festive season.
The first woman to have a Christmas number one was to come only two years after the charts started, in 1954. Winifred Atwell had a hit with ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ and spent five weeks at number one. Atwell was also the first Black person to have a number one hit, as well as a Christmas number one.
Solo acts dominated in the early years, but the first group to hit the top at Christmas were Emile Ford and the Checkmates in 1959, with ‘What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?’ Ford was the first Black British artist to sell one million copies of a single, and went on to create a backing track system which would provide the basis for karaoke.
By our count, charity singles (ten), novelty songs (nine) and competition winners debuts (six) have dominated in the Christmas number one race, with some overlaps between them.
Christmas number ones don’t have to be about anything remotely festive, as proven by 1993’s Mr Bobby, whose song ‘Mr Blobby’ spent three weeks at number one. But songs about the festive season fly up the charts regularly at this time of year.
The first number one with Christmas in the title came in 1955: Dickie Valentine’s version of the ‘Christmas Alphabet.’ Since then, Christmas number ones have featured across the decades.
But some of the most popular Christmas songs never reached the top spot. ‘Fairytale of New York’ was the most played Christmas song of the 21st Century, and has been regularly voted the best in public polls. It reached number two in 1987, and was beaten by the Pet Shop Boys’ version of ‘Always on My Mind’.
Some of the other well-known Christmas regulars peaked at number two; ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham was beaten by Band Aid, and ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’ by Mariah Carey has been beaten twice, first by East 17 in 1994 and then by Ladbaby in 2020. Wizzard’s banger ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday’ only made it to number four (although Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ was the top one to beat it that year).
The biggest-selling Christmas number one is Band Aid’s 1984 release ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ which sold 3.2 million copies, followed by Bohemian Rhapsody which made it to the Christmas top spot twice (in 1975 and 1991).
But which act has spent the most time at the top during Christmas? By a mile, it is The Beatles with 21 weeks across four hits at Christmas. If you factor in Wings (who had nine weeks at number one over Christmas with Mull of Kintyre), Paul McCartney can say he’s had a whopping 30 weeks.
Following on from The Beatles is Queen with 14 weeks the two releases of Bohemian Rhapsody, and Whitney Houston with the aforementioned 10-week behemoth. Although we might think of Cliff Richard as a constant in the Christmas charts, he has spent seven weeks at the top spot with three different hits, only just in front of the Spice Girls who had six week with three different songs. LadBaby may have dominated the charts for the last four years, but collectively, each one has only lasted a week at number one.
With streaming now bringing back older Christmas songs each year to the charts, it seems like a sound way for musicians to secure a nice retirement. Sleigh bells and rousing Christmas-themed lyrics seem like a good place to start. However, if the last few years are any indication, sausage rolls are also a solid inspiration.
Listen to the songs mentioned in this post:
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay