Mariah Carey's 'Merry Christmas' 20th Anniversary: Find Out What Went Into Making a Modern Christmas Classic

Mariah Carey
Courtesy of Columbia Records

Cover of Mariah Carey's 1994 album, Merry Christmas.

Since 1994, nothing says that Christmas has arrived quite like the iconic opening bells of Mariah Carey’s worldwide hit "All I Want For Christmas is You." 20 years later, the tune still takes over pop culture each December: Climbing the charts, showing up like a Mariah Carey-approved hug in Love Actually right when fans are about to cry from overwhelming holiday emotions, and even racking up viral homages on YouTube (we’re partial to the leotard-wearing dancers rocking out in a studio).

This weekend (Nov. 1) will mark the 20th anniversary of the song and the album, Merry Christmas, which has sold over 15 million copies worldwide and is the most successful Christmas album of all time. In honor of the anniversary, Billboard recently spoke with superstar producer Walter Afanasieff, who, in addition to co-producing Merry Christmas, co-wrote all three original songs on the Christmas album with Carey, including "All I Want For Christmas Is You."

"Mariah’s tried to outdo herself by re-recording it with a new intro, and then she tried it again with the [2011 duet] version with Justin Bieber," Afanasieff recalls about Carey’s quest to try and improve upon her "All I Want For Christmas Is You" record. "You can’t reinvent the wheel when you’ve got something that, by the world’s standards, is already perfect. I’m not saying that to pat myself on the back, but it’s what everyone says: ‘We don’t want a new version; we don’t want an updated version, we just want that!'"

Afanasieff, who had previously worked with Carey on "Love Takes Time," Emotions, and Music Box, talked to Billboard about the recording process of Merry Christmas, his songwriting partnership with Carey, and why, shockingly, everyone may "just want that" now, but no one thought "All I Want For Christmas Is You" would be a hit when it was originally recorded. 

Can you tell me about how the work on Merry Christmas first began?

Afanasieff: We started working on the Christmas album in 1993. This is about three years [after we first started working together]. Mariah and I started writing a few songs for what would be her Christmas album. 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." And then 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.

So we worked together, and I stared 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.' 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."

Of the three original songs, one has kind of a gospel feel ("Jesus Born on This Day"), one is more ballad-y ("Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)"), and one is pop-rock ("All I Want for Christmas is You"). Was that a specific decision you and Mariah made to dabble in the different genres, or did that come about naturally?

It came out of just the respect for Christmas. There are always three different areas that Christmas music goes into: Traditional Christmas songs, fun kiddie songs like "Rudolph" or "Frosty," and then you have your love songs, which are like “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” all those kinds of songs.  So we decided to write one of each.

With "All I Want For Christmas Is You," from that first songwriting meeting at the piano, how long was the timeframe before the finished product came together?

It was always the same sort of system with us. We would write the nucleus of the song, the melody primary music, and then some of the words were there as we finished writing it. That one went very quickly: It was an easier song to write then 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. I think that’s one of the components that made it unique year after year. That part of it took maybe an hour, and then I went home. 

At the time, did you think “All I Want For Christmas Is You” would be the big hit of the album?

Nooo. 20 years ago, Christmas music and Christmas albums by artists weren’t the big deal that they are today. 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.' To think of it as a single that’s going to No. 1, that’s going to drive an album…we didn’t have an inkling of that. That’s not what the time was. That’s what made it such a modern phenomenon: Because it’s not like "White Christmas" or "Jingle Bells" – the song doesn’t have any of those traditional elements, but it became a huge pop hit. 

You mentioned that there are so many more Christmas albums today. Because of that, why haven’t we seen another hit on that level?

I’m not totally sure what to say, because to me, it’s kind of a cosmic occurrence that happens once every five billion years. By the way, thousands of original Christmas songs have been written in the last 20 years. It’s not like no one writes Christmas songs—everyone is trying to get a Christmas song. 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. It just closed.

I’m sure there’s going to be another one; there has to be. But it has to be the right artist at the right time, the right words and the right melody for the right cultural moment.  It became our song 20 years ago, and it just keeps growing and growing. I believe "All I Want For Christmas is You" will be the most successful, popular Christmas song of all time.

I agree with you about it only getting stronger! It was a huge hit before, but I think that song becoming such a part of Love Actually in 2003, and then that movie become such a big hit, only helped the song gain even more traction.

Absolutely. And mind you, that’s another phenomenon we should pay attention to. Mariah Carey very, very rarely allows someone to record any of her songs in any film or television or any other medium. But Mariah did allow that little girl to sing it in Love Actually and that’s the only time she’s allowed it. Imagine if Mariah had said yes to any of the other hundreds of requests for other movies and times that song would be recorded. I have no doubt the song would have been 20 times more popular. We’re going off that one little movie, that one little girl singing it.

Do you know why Mariah allowed Love Actually to do the song?

I don’t. I think she just had a particular fondness for the movie; she liked the script and she liked the actors.  I’m sure she thought, "it’s a young girl, it’s the right time." It’s just a very lovely cute movie, and it’s become a Christmas classic film.  Love Actually in the last 10 years has become one of the biggest Christmas movies. That in itself, in 10 or 20 years, will become even more of a Christmas classic, and that helps our song become embedded even more as a classic into our culture. It’s awesome.

I know in the past Mariah has mentioned that she would love to do a movie adaptation of “All I Want For Christmas is You.” Do you have an opinion on that?

Here’s the thing. We don’t have a relationship, Mariah and I. We shared a moment in our lives, but then she had to split off from the rest of us. So with all of her personal angst and her personal, emotional split up with her husband meant she had to split up with [all of us]. These were her personal choices….She let that be the status quo, so we haven’t worked together since the Butterfly album. I don’t know any of her plans or decisions for the future about stuff I created with her. I would hope that I would have seen something this year, being that it’s the 20th anniversary, but I have not seen or heard anything.

For the non-original songs on the album, out of all the Christmas music, how did you and Mariah decide on which songs made the cut?

It was always a companion decision between Mariah and Tommy and the record company. So Tommy being the record company and being her partner and husband, we were always subject to his opinion and guidance. Mariah really took his wisdom very seriously, because if you don’t have the support of the record company, you might as well hang up. You need to have the partnership. Mariah also has specific styles she wanted to sing; she wanted a variety that really exemplified her voice and took her to places that she normally wouldn’t go to in her pop career. 

You’ve worked with so many iconic artists over the years. What’s the key to a successful writing or producing partnership?

To me, the key to any collaboration is to make sure that you are keeping your integrity intact and that you are true to yourself because today it is very difficult to do that because of the flavor of the month, people get on the radio doing a very particular thing today. You can’t just do whatever you want and get on the radio like in the old days. So people have been selling out, and really subscribing to a very narrow lane of music creation just to get on the radio. That to me is a very bad part about the music business. I’m very saddened by that and very unsupportive of that.

I love all music. If you’ve got something to say, you should be able to say it and I think if you’ve got something to say people should be able to hear it if they want. In the old days, and I’m talking about 20 years ago, we were doing Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, New Kids on the Block. We were all working hand in hand to create music that had their integrity and their strength and style was shining brightly as forever artists. Today you have a very hard time finding forever artists in the mainstream pop that is being produced. So, that’s my spiel. Everyone had their moment of glory, but the ones who kept their moment of glory forever were those that were true to themselves.  

Interview has been condensed and edited.