Mariah Carey is considered the Queen of Christmas for good reason: Her 1994 classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which she co-wrote with Walter Afanasieff, recently became the first holiday recording to achieve RIAA diamond certification. The King could well be Johnny Marks, a songwriter active in the 1950s and ’60s who wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” among others. In total, Marks’ songs accounted for almost 7% of all holiday on-demand audio streams in the first six weeks of the holiday listening season (Oct. 29-Dec. 9), according to MRC Data and its list of the top 5,000 tracks.
Unsurprisingly, Christmas listening is dominated by a relatively small number of big songs — “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “White Christmas” — that have been hits several times over. What is surprising, however, is how thoroughly the consumption of those songs are dominated by what music fans have come to consider the definitive version — not only in the case of pop stars like Carey (whose version of “All I Want for Christmas” accounts for 82% of the song’s plays) but for chestnuts like “White Christmas,” which gets 47% of its total streams from Bing Crosby’s version.
Two more things the top 20 holiday songs have in common: age and popularity amongst recording artists. Younger songs need at least a decade to develop into a potential holiday standard and collect cover versions along the way. Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” from 2010 and Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” from 2014 are the newest songs inside the top 40 holiday tracks — Clarkson at No. 25 and Grande at No. 23 — but only one and three other versions, respectively, appear in the top 5,000 tracks. In contrast, decades-old classics such as “The Christmas Song” (103 versions in the top 5,000), “White Christmas” (99 versions) or “Winter Wonderland” (95 versions) have each been recorded many dozens of times. If their songs can maintain their momentum, Clarkson and Grande — each of whom co-wrote their songs — may be sitting on future holiday classics.