How the UK Christmas No 1 became a national obsession – and a vicious competition

Charity singalongs, novelty hits and Facebook campaign curveballs – the festive top spot holds a symbolic power for the British. Is that why Mariah still can’t win it?

When sleigh bells begin jingling in the distance, thoughts turn to gifts, turkeys and, most importantly, what will be No 1 come Christmas day. At least, they do in the UK – where the quest to net a festive chart topper is a national obsession that inspires fierce loyalties, grassroots campaigns and, of course, dozens of novelty singles.

A glance at the list of UK Christmas No 1s reveals no historical rhyme or reason: Clean Bandit are as likely to make it as The Beatles, a festive track has as much chance as the Pet Shop Boys’ pristine cover of Always on My Mind. A school choir can release an ode to Grandmas and, of course, there are bizarre outliers such as LadBaby, Bob the Builder and the never-to-be-underestimated Mr Blobby.

For the first decades of the charts, the Christmas No 1 wasn’t a major concern. Usually, it would be a Christmas-specific song or The Beatles. But in the 1970s, something changed. “Top Of The Pops took on a life of its own because colour television became more widespread,” Official Charts managing director Martin Talbot explains. At the same time as colour images were being beamed into our living rooms, glam – with its over-the-top bravado and outfits that sparkled like baubles – arrived to disrupt rock’s natural order.

In 1973, the first real Christmas head-to-head emerged: Slade versus Wizzard. Nothing could top Noddy Holder screaming “IT’S CHRISTMAAAAS’’, so Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody beat Wizzard’s gawkish wall-of-sound classic I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday to the punch, annoying Wizzard so much that they snuck into Top of the Pops and chucked custard pies at their rivals. The battle of the glam-rockers captured the public imagination and a tradition was born.

Glam wasn’t the only thing that sparked public devotion to the Christmas No 1. Some say it’s all down to the bookies. The British love a flutter and have been betting on what will top the charts on 25 December for over 40 years. In 1984, Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas was the clear frontrunner, so bookies ended up taking bets on what would be number two instead. (It was Wham!’s Last Christmas – which, like Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, has never made it to the top of the Christmas chart.)

Of course, beneath the romantic drama of the Christmas No 1 lies the machinery of the music industry. Before the advent of iTunes and Spotify there was a killing to be made selling singles in the run up to the big day. “It took on a particular significance being number one at Christmas time,” says chart analyst and historian James Masterton, “because it meant you had the most popular record out at the very point when the most people were actually inside record stores.”

Never was this more apparent than in the 90s, when the Spice Girls took aim at the Christmas No 1 and got it three years running (from 2 Become 1 in 1996 to Goodbye in 1998). Two years later, Bob The Builder showed that as much as you can build a huge career and have the might of the recording industry behind you, the British public will shun you for a novelty hit at the drop of a hat.

In the 2000s, X Factor winners began to monopolise the top spot. Simon Cowell’s talent show was timed specifically so that each winner’s single was released just in time for the Christmas No 1 race. With the huge exposure of The X Factor behind them, it was little wonder that from 2005 to 2008, the contest winner closed Christmas day Top of the Pops with whatever mawkish cover they had going.

A disgruntled public objected. In 2009 a digital marketer named Jon Morter and his then-wife, wedding photographer Tracy Hayden, began a Facebook campaign to get Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name to No 1, and upended everything. Joe McElderry, that year’s X Factor winner, didn’t stand a chance. “It caught us a bit off guard,” Talbot says. “That was the first time a democratic public vote came to the fore.”

The X Factor cadre was not enthused: 2013 winner Sam Bailey described the Rage Against the Machine campaign as “sabotage”. But Chris Molanphy, journalist and US chart expert, was in awe of the outcome. “It really showed how the UK public have a vested interest in this contest,” he says. “There’s nothing quite like that in America.” It would be almost impossible to pull something similar off in the US – a much larger country where radio play accounts for a huge portion of the charts, unlike the UK. Historically, the US Christmas No 1 has been a song released months prior continuing its steady climb; in recent years, as streaming has factored into the charts, it has almost exclusively been All I Want for Christmas Is You.

In the 2020s, Christmas No 1 has become a charitable concern. Since the Military Wives choir topped the charts in 2011, it has almost become a prerequisite for each Christmas No 1 to have an element of fundraising to it. Even Justin Bieber had to mobilise his fandom to buy the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir’s A Bridge Over You to avoid the embarrassment of beating a charity to the punch with his 2015 kiss off Love Yourself.

For the past four years, YouTuber LadBaby has held the Christmas No 1 with various sausage-roll invoking one-offs raising money for the Trussell Trust food bank charity. It’s hard to begrudge a worthy cause – and especially one so essential to so many people this year in particular – but it has undeniably made the race for Christmas chart-topper somewhat boring. How can we recapture the magic? Perhaps a LadBaby contender needs to arise – some Frankenstein’d Christmas No 1, such as Mariah Carey featuring Mr Blobby with an All I Want for Christmas remix, with all proceeds going to the Wembley Stadium lasagne project. How could it fail?

  • This article was updated on 17 November 2022 to reflect that the Rage Against The Machine Christmas campaign was organised by Jon Morter and his then-wife Tracy Hayden, rather than Morter alone.


Kate Solomon

The GuardianTramp

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