Last year, it started on Nov. 2.
That was the day when Mariah Carey‘s everlasting “All I Want for Christmas Is You” began its yearly trek up the Internet charts.
The song annually tops the list of most-streamed holiday songs and is officially the most-downloaded holiday single of all time. According to Tech Times, it’s also the 11th-highest selling single of all time and has earned more than $50 million for Carey and cowriter Walter Afanasieff. It is, bar none, the most enduring modern Christmas “standard” of our time, and I personally guarantee you’re hearing it in your head right now. That is its power.
Afanasieff was one of Carey’s trusted collaborators in 1994. He’d previously worked with her on “Love Takes Time,” Emotions and Music Box, and recalled to Billboard in 2014 that work on Carey’s Christmas album initially started in 1993.
“Twenty years ago,” he said in 2014, “Christmas music and Christmas albums by artists weren’t the big deal that they are today … The first song we wrote was ‘Miss You Most (At Christmas Time).’ It was a ballad-y, sort of sad song. And then we wrote a classical, sort of religious song called ‘Jesus Born on This Day.’ “
“Then,” Afanasieff recalled, “we started to write what Mariah wanted to do and what Tommy [Mottola, the CEO of Sony and Carey’s then-husband] wanted to do which was a Phil Spector, old rock ‘n’ roll, sixties-sounding Christmas song.”
Afanasieff is referring to A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, a 1963 album that saw Spector apply his trademark “Wall of Sound” production to a collection of Christmas standards performed by his roster of artists, including The Ronettes, The Crystals and Darlene Love. Brian Wilson called it his favorite album of all time, and several of its cuts (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” among them) became iconic Christmas songs — original pressings of the record (a failure at the time) now sell for up to $300.
“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 caroling,” Carey said at the time. “I wrote it just out of love for Christmas and like really loving Christmas music,” she added in 2015. 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.”
“I stared playing some rock ‘n’ roll piano and started boogie woogie-ing my left hand,” Afanasieff recalled. Carey joined in with the first line, “I don’t want a lot for Christmas,” and the song was off to the races. Initially, Carey’s melody faced some resistance from her co-writer, though: “My first reaction was, ‘That sounds like someone doing voice scales,’ ” Afanasieff told Business Insider in 2013. “‘Are you sure that’s what you want?'”
Carey persisted, and the work continued for a few hours. “She would sing a melody and I would do a chord change,” he continued to BI. “It was almost like a game of ping-pong, back and forth, until we had it.”
“That one went very quickly,” he explained to Billboard. “It was an easier song to write than some of the other ones. It was very formulaic; not a lot of chord changes. I tried to make it a little more unique, putting in some special chords that you really don’t hear a lot of, which made it unique and special.”
Afanasieff is underselling his own work. Writing at Slate, Adam Ragusea undertook an extensive analysis of the harmony behind “All I Want for Christmas,” 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, “All I Want” is, despite its seemingly simplicity, a relatively sophisticated piece of pop songwriting that has more in common with the Great American Songbook than it does with any of its peers on the charts in 1994. “It’s very retro, kind of like Sixties,” Carey said in 1994.
Afanasieff and Carey tinkered away with the music and lyrics until the summer of 1994. After first attempting to record the song in California with a live band, 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.” Carey also reportedly brought in Christmas lights and trees in the studio to set the mood while she sang.
Afanasieff had no idea the pair had dusted a hit. In fact, he remembered to ASCAP in 2014 that he 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.’ “
Afanasieff wasn’t alone in his mistrust of the setup. In his book Hitmaker: The Man and His Music, Tommy Mottola — who was the then-24-year-old Carey’s husband (he has a cameo as Santa in the song’s video) — remembered his wife’s resistance to the cover art to the Christmas album. “What are you trying to do, turn me into Connie Francis?” Carey reportedly told him.
“It’s a Christmas song, but it has no religious content,” Andrea Dresdale of ABC News Radio told Vogue of “All I Want”‘s eternal popularity in 2015. “In reality, it’s just a love song. Everybody understands longing, desire, love, or just missing somebody. It’s an upbeat song. So many Christmas songs are not. Many of them are ballads, some of them are depressing, but this one sounds like a party.”
Afanasieff and Carey parted ways after Carey’s 1997 album Butterfly, but he remains philosophical about his song’s success — reinvigorated around its 20th birthday by pivotal placement in 2003’s equally iconic Love, Actually.
“It’s not like no one writes Christmas songs — everyone is trying to get a Christmas song,” he told Billboard. “But for whatever reason ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ just became that song. It’s kind of something you never would have thought, and you can’t really explain why, and we feel lucky, because it was the last major song to enter that Christmas canon, and then the door slammed shut.”
Afanasieff also gave BI one last piece of advice about the song: “The last thing I would tell a record company is to make another ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You.’ “
Oh, and if you needed any more evidence of “All I Want”‘s appeal, it literally seems to work on an interspecies level. In 2010, a British goat farmer found out that his goats produced more milk when played a loop of Carey’s hit. Apparently “The Chipmunk Song” had the opposite effect, so consider those two the yin and yang of “Christmas songs that promote goat milk production,” if that’s a category anyone’s keeping track of.
“The fact that [Mariah] was able to write a song that broke through and became the modern Christmas classic proved what a talented songwriter she is,” Dresdale added. “It also allowed her to brand herself as the Queen of Christmas. She’s turned Christmas into a cottage industry. This song really was one of the greatest things that ever happened to Mariah Carey.”
Well, Carey and the world at large. Her and Afanasieff’s creation is, literally, after 25 years, all we want, whether we know it or not.