The pop icon started writing Christmas songs to overcome childhood scars. Now she has one of the biggest holiday anthems of all time -- and a seasonal empire of live shows and screen projects that just keeps growing.
In hindsight, Mariah Carey regrets the bangs.
“Even then it wasn’t good,” she scoffs, condemning the offending fringe and ringlets she sported at her first Christmas concert in December 1994. Then 24 with a handful of No. 1 hits already to her name, Carey had just released her first holiday album, Merry Christmas, when she and a gospel choir took the stage at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Along with classic carols, she performed live for the first time some of the album’s new songs -- including “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
Carey has been thinking a lot lately about that St. John the Divine concert, which over the years has achieved legendary status among her fans. In November, she released a deluxe anniversary edition of Merry Christmas that included previously unreleased live recordings from that show, and she has been revisiting the film footage from that night, like the performance of “Joy to the World” she released as a music video 25 years ago. But she still can’t quite get over her style choices.
“Somebody tweeted the [“Joy to the World” video] the other day: ‘Love this. Bet she hates the hair, though,’ ” says Carey, flashing a wry smile in a loft in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood late one November evening. Today, the amber waves framing her face look much sleeker than the voluminous mane she rocked in the ’90s. “It should’ve just been regular curls without the ponytail and the blown-out bangs. But we all go through these things, and I digress.”
Nothing -- neither tweet nor unfortunate coif -- gets past Carey, whose keen memory and fastidious eye for detail are at the height of their powers during the holidays. In the years since she released Merry Christmas, the season has become as essential to her brand as her famed whistle register and her many Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers. A few weeks after our interview, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which Carey co-wrote with collaborator Walter Afanasieff, topped the Hot 100 for the first time thanks to the annual (and growing) spike in streaming it receives around the holidays. It is Carey’s 19th No. 1 single on the chart -- the most among solo artists in history -- and only the second holiday song to reach the top position (after The Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song” with David Seville ruled for four weeks in 1958-59).
“We definitely wanted to kick it into high gear this year with the song to celebrate the 25th anniversary, but I definitely didn’t expect it to hit No. 1 two weeks before Christmas,” Carey tells me the day of the song’s summit. “I just want to thank everybody. I want the world to have the best holiday ever.”
Yet even its status as a No. 1 single doesn’t totally capture the song’s might. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has topped Billboard’s Holiday 100 for 38 of the seasonal chart’s 43 weekly editions since it launched in 2011, and it’s also the biggest-selling digital holiday track of all time: To date, it has sold 3.6 million downloads in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. (Remarkably, the song is being released as a physical single for the first time ever this month.) Carey is especially proud of how, last year, the song broke Spotify’s record for the most streamed track in a 24-hour period. “I think that’s very important,” she says during our original conversation, “because people want to say, ‘She’s a physical [albums] artist. She doesn’t understand or know [streaming]. It’s a different business.’ Then why did the song break the record for most streamed song within one day?”
Today, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the gold standard for contemporary Christmas originals, sitting in the holiday canon alongside “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and the carols Carey grew up singing. Even her closest collaborators can’t quite fathom its cultural impact. “That’s the thing I know about most Christmas records: You’re not going to be Bing Crosby; you’re not going to be Nat ‘King’ Cole,” says Randy Jackson, who played bass on Merry Christmas and has worked with Carey as a musical director, producer and manager over the years. “But she took it upon herself and wrote new Christmas songs that were unbelievably amazing.”
Creating a modern classic is not enough for Carey, however. In the past decade, she has also built a Christmas empire that stretches well beyond music. The single has spawned a TV special (for ABC in 2010), a Hallmark Channel original movie (2015’s A Christmas Melody, which she starred in and directed), a children’s book (2015’s All I Want for Christmas Is You, which inspired a 2017 animated film of the same name) and an annual Christmas spectacular that, since its launch in New York in 2014, has expanded into multiple cities and grossed $16.5 million, according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore (which do not include grosses for all dates). Two years ago, she brought the show to Europe for the first time, and in 2019, instead of her usual cluster of stateside theater shows, Carey played a handful of U.S. arenas.
“We had talked about Christmas and doing something special,” says her longtime agent, Rob Light of Creative Artists Agency, of the show’s origins. “She brought up the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes and how special it was for her, how she always wished she could do something like that. I responded, ‘Why can’t you?’ The hope now is to take [her Christmas show] and really make it an annual event that takes on a much wider, worldwide appeal.”
Carey’s passion for Christmas is unmissable in conversation. She rattles off sales figures, chart stats and behind-the-scenes trivia as quickly as she cracks jokes, including several that wink at her own diva reputation. (When I first mention Merry Christmas’ 25th anniversary, she cuts me off: “Let’s get this straight: It has only been two years since the release of the album,” she says with a laugh.) But Carey is also unflinchingly candid as she looks back on painful holiday memories from her “extremely damaged” childhood -- her parents divorced when she was 3 -- and she doesn’t hesitate to draw a straight line between them and her unabashed adoration of the holiday as an adult. Carey’s Christmas business is lucrative and, of course, lots of fun, but it’s driven by something much deeper.
“I truly love Christmas and just live for that feeling that’s unlike everything else,” she says. “It’s a childlike quality that I have, and I know that. I know most people are like, ‘Ugh, it’s Christmas. I have to get everybody gifts and deal with my family.’ It’s not that I don’t have those issues. I do. But I put it all aside for just one peaceful moment alone by the tree listening to music.”
Do you hear Merry Christmas any differently now than you did back then?
It’s interesting, because I pick a lot of things apart about the Merry Christmas album. Originally, I would just nitpick “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Not the song itself, but the vocal: “Why didn’t I fix this? Why didn’t I do that?” Things that would irritate me. Now I just live with it and love it. My relationship with Merry Christmas is better than it was when I first made the album. I put so much into it. It wasn’t like, “Here’s a throwaway.” This was a real labor of love, and I’m a perfectionist.
Your two Christmas albums -- Merry Christmas II You arrived in 2010 -- touch on so many sounds and styles. Do you find the subject of Christmas creatively liberating?
I find it freeing, honestly, because it’s taking myself out of having to be like, “This is my version of what I think a hit is.” It doesn’t necessarily make sense to everybody. I’ve said this before, and I touch on it in my memoir [due in 2020 on Andy Cohen’s imprint at Henry Holt & Co.]: I grew up looking forward to the holidays all year long, but because I have such a tragically dysfunctional family, certain family members or ex-family members would ruin it every year. As an adult, what I’ve tried to do is take what I always wished Christmas would be and have the perfect holiday season. For me, it’s not just making a Christmas album for the sake of jumping on a bandwagon. It’s literally exorcising the demons that I had to battle as a child and coming out still feeling festive.
You have songs on your album that speak to this melancholy. Did you always want to acknowledge the darker side of the holidays in your work?
The truth is, it was a subconscious thing. Somebody mentioned to me the other day that “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the saddest Christmas song ever written. I was like, “Did you have to get that analytical about it?!” But after hearing that, I was like, “Oh, I can see it: ‘Santa, won’t you bring me the one I really need/Won’t you please bring my baby to me quickly.’ ” (Laughs.) I just want to enjoy the holidays. The Christmas songs that I’ve written help me do that. The songs that were written decades before I was born help me do that. A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman -- all these things that I grew up watching and still watch with my kids [do that].
There’s a really sweet moment in your Christmas show when you cover “Christmastime Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas and clips from the cartoon play onscreen.
I love that you said that because this guy that’s working on my show right now has been like, “Let’s redo the Charlie Brown part.” I’m like, “But the [Charles] Schulz estate gave me that footage!” They were like, “We love your version of ‘Christmastime Is Here’! That’s our favorite version of that song.” For me, that was a huge compliment. But yeah, I don’t think it needs to be redone. You can’t make it better! You can’t reinvent people’s memories and make them different!
Tradition is a big part of Christmas, but you made some changes to the show this year: In New York, you moved from the Beacon Theatre to Madison Square Garden.
Obviously, I still love doing those shows at the Beacon Theatuh, dahling -- it’s great that it’s intimate -- but I wanted to put on an even bigger kind of a show, more of an extravaganza. So this year, certain things changed. But when it comes to, “Oh, we should change the Charlie Brown thing, we can re-create it,” I’m like, “But I don’t want that!” I don’t care that it’s not super high definition. Who cares? It is what it is! It’s more nostalgic for me the other way, so make it work that way! We all have different triggers that make us feel more grounded. I know what makes me feel festive, and the first time I sing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” each year is the best part of the year for me.
What do you remember about the very first time you performed it?
It was at St. John the Divine. All of that audio is available for the first time on this deluxe anniversary edition. That was a really defining moment of my career. It was a charity event, and we raised over half a million dollars for the Fresh Air Fund [a nonprofit that provides summer programs for children from low-income communities]. That’s the reason the whole thing is so important. I’m just like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. I remember it. It was boring. It was all rich people. They barely clapped. Nobody knew ‘All I Want for Christmas’ yet.” But then the kids in the front were all Fresh Air Fund kids, and they were all clapping in Fresh Air Fund T-shirts. They fueled me. Those kids gave me so much life.
Speaking of children: Your 8-year-old twins, Moroccan and Monroe, are a part of your Christmas shows. I saw them stop by the photo shoot for this story on their way to choir practice.
They want to be onstage. I said, “If you don’t want to do it, please tell me, because I’ll never force you to do anything with show business. It’s up to you.” [They’re like,] “We want to do it! We want to do it!” They’ve been running out and giving me hugs and throwing T-shirts to the crowd [at my shows], which is all fun and games, but they actually have beautiful voices. If they want to do it, they need to get to rehearsal and figure out the song and focus and not be on the iPads all the time. But they’re doing great. I’m so glad you saw them on their hoverboards because that’s their new favorite thing. I love anything that’s not the iPads.
How has parenthood changed the way you celebrate the holidays?
Aside from these Christmas shows, there’s the actual leaving town and celebrating Christmas in Aspen [Colo.], which is my favorite, favorite thing to do. It’s become their favorite thing to do. We do everything from sledding to sleigh-riding. Santa Claus comes to the house and talks to them. When I didn’t have kids, I helped a friend of mine that used to work with me. She had a kid, and I made the holidays about her. It was for me, but it [also let me] see the holidays through the eyes of a child. Now, with my own kids, it’s just a trillion times more impactful.
When do the holidays start for you?
As soon as I stop working. This year, I think they start on the 22nd, which is a day and a half too late, if you ask me. [I like] at least a week of Christmas music and Christmas movies and activities only. When we’re relaxing, no one’s allowed to listen to anything but Christmas music until Jan. 1.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” has led to more than just Christmas shows. It has inspired books, films. It’s a big part of the movie Love, Actually.
The curious thing about that is that [the movie] happened before the song was as big as it is. So the Love, Actually moment, I’m actually very grateful for it because I think it did help the song reach an even greater audience. But I also think the song has taken on a life of its own that I had never anticipated.
How many asks do you get a year to license “All I Want for Christmas Is You”?
A lot. Some are from people whom I respect enormously. I [usually] want to say yes, but I may be working that year on something for myself with the song, be it a film project or cartoon. I should be flattered, and I am. But sometimes I just want to keep my version. It’s precious to me because it genuinely feels like it’s a part of my childhood that I never got to experience.
What inspired you to branch off into film with these songs?
Honestly, I’ve always wanted to do a cartoon movie around my character from the All I Want for Christmas Is You book. I would love to do another. I think I would do a better version now because my life is different -- the people in my professional career are different. But I’m still happy because my kids love it. It’s a nice thing for children. I’m not saying it’s a Christmas classic, but I know I have the capacity to make a Christmas classic. I would like to have the support system to do that. That, I think, is the next chapter in this. I believe it can happen.
At this point, it seems like if you wanted to do a musical based on the song, there would be an audience. If you opened a pop-up “All I Want for Christmas Is You” restaurant, I’m sure the line would be around the block.
This is what we talked about last year! But unfortunately, there have been a couple years of difficult stuff that I’ve had to overcome and get through. But you push your way through anything negative. You should remember that I come from an extremely damaged childhood. But the thing is, from the manure comes a flower. You have to go through some stuff where you can get to a place where you can be optimistic because if you don’t have that optimism, you won’t survive.
What were your holidays like growing up?
[My mother] is the reason why I love Christmas so much. She got me into it. My dad wasn’t into it -- my parents were divorced. But she was super festive and tried really hard even though we had no money. She would wrap up fruit in newspaper and give it to me like, “This is from the cat!” She would sing Christmas carols and make mulled wine and have her friends over. I got that from her, and whatever our differences are, I’m so thankful for that.
The fact is, her Irish family disowned us. I’m not going to get into it -- it was a different time -- but to her mom, that she married a black man was the biggest affront that could ever happen. As a person, it makes you feel like, “Well, what am I? I’m not worthy of love from this side of the family?” But at the holidays, everything got erased. I just focused on the holidays. You can drown in negativity, or you can push past it. I don’t know what they told you to write about or what you wanted to write about. But I think that’s the story.
Last question: What do you want for Christmas this year?
Honestly -- how do I say this? -- we want peace on earth. I think everybody knows that we want that. Personally, I would like for my children to have a beautiful holiday and have the best time ever. And I would like the same for myself.