The arrival of new music every holiday season is a given, but in the UK, the Christmas Number Ones have traditionally been a huge deal. To the casual observer, however, the battle over the top spot can seem like an arms race.
Famously, in romantic comedy Love Actually, Bill Nighy’s aging rock star character, Billy Mack, enters the Christmas Number Ones Hall Of Fame with his reinterpretation of The Troggs’ ‘Love Is All Around’, reworked as ‘Christmas Is All Around’.
Mack’s fictional tune fits right in with the hodgepodge of songs that comprise this yearly bloodsport. From novelty songs to one-hit wonders, reality show singles to charity tracks, the cult of the Christmas Number Ones shows no sign of dying down.
But it wasn’t always songs of persistent Yuletide cheer that dominated the coveted spot. The Beatles achieved this feat not one, but four times with their 60s pop hits ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘Hello, Goodbye’, with nary a mention of sleighs or snow.
It wasn’t until 1973 that the stakes were raised for this annual Christmas Number Ones chart battle. During an era of civil and economic unrest, the contest swept the nation when glam rock acts Slade and Wizzard released their own festive anthems.
Long before the battle of Britpop, the two groups faced off with Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ versus Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, pitting fans against one another to decide who would take the crown. Slade eventually came out on top, but the contest was a welcome distraction during a stressful time and has become just an integral part of the holiday season as Christmas jumpers and Frank Sinatra.
To celebrate the holiday, here are some of the most memorable Christmas Number Ones that captured our hearts.
Band Aid: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984)
It’s a commonly-held belief that charity songs do not age well, yet Bob Geldof’s star-studded response to the 1984 Ethiopian famine remains the biggest-selling Christmas Number One of all time, selling over 3.8 million copies and raising a heap of money for the cause. Why feature one crooner of the day, when you can get almost 40? A perfect example of well-intentioned 80s maximalism that haunts the aisles of every grocery store.
Benny Hill: ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)’ (1971)
Just as charity songs are holiday chart fixtures, novelty songs are also a festive favourite. From The Scaffold’s ‘Lily The Pink’ to ‘Mr Blobby’, many of these make their way to the top of the chart tree, but none hold a candle to this saucy single from comedian Benny Hill. The former milkman turned TV icon originally wrote the tune for his famous sketch show and, in 1971, it became a Christmas Number One, with Hill extolling the virtues of “hot rolls every morning and crumpets every night”.
Queen: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (1975 and 1991)
Released just before the holiday season, Queen’s A Night At The Opera and its staggering lead single ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ took hold of the charts and never let go. Not only did the song join the ranks of Christmas Number Ones in 1975, but it pulled off the same feat 16 years later, following the death of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. Thanks to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’’s success, we’re not all singing Hot Chocolate’s ‘You Sexy Thing’ around the Christmas tree; the song has become the UK’s best-selling single of all time, and, in December 2018, became the most-streamed track from the 20th Century.
Wings: ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ (1977)
The Chieftains weren’t the only ones with a monopoly on seasonal pipe bands for holiday tunes. Inspired by his love for his Scottish hideaway, Paul McCartney and his Wings bandmate Denny Laine penned the ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ with the help of local Campbeltown Pipe Band. The wistful tune is hardly a yuletide anthem, yet it became Wings’ biggest UK hit and the first UK single to sell more than two million copies.
Boney M: ‘Mary’s Boy Child’/‘Oh My Lord’ (1978)
This seasonal hit from the disco group Boney M is best experienced with full visuals as the band are decked out in furs dancing to a calypso rhythm. Boney M had already notched a million-selling single in 1978 with ‘Rivers Of Babylon’/‘Brown Girl In The Ring’, and their new holiday single made it a double by combining the 50s carol ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ with additional arrangement of ‘Oh My Lord’ by producer Frank Farian.
The Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’(1981)
The holidays can be an emotionally trying time for us all, so it’s no wonder so many connected with the lovelorn lyrics and impossibly catchy chorus of The Human League’s synth-pop anthem. Aided by a slick music video, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ became an unlikely entry among the Christmas Number Ones, topping the UK chart for five weeks.
East 17: ‘Stay Another Day’ (1994)
This boy band ballad proves that twinkling chimes and white parkas do not a Christmas song make. Considered a seasonal classic by many, others are unconvinced that it can be classified as a true holiday song. East 17 member Tony Mortimer actually wrote the sombre lyrics about the death of his brother – not that you’d know it from the aggressively festive music video. Nonetheless, this misunderstood pop anthem became the third best-selling single of 1994.
Girls Aloud: ‘Sound Of The Underground’ (2002)
Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like corporate synergy. Since the rise of singing competition shows in the early 00s, reality stars have dominated the Christmas charts, starting with Girls Aloud in 2002. Not only did the show Popstars: The Rivals birth two rival groups – Girls Aloud and One True Voice – but it pitted them against each other in the annual Christmas Number Ones battle. From 2005 to 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2014, reality-show winners hit the top spot, with one notable exception from an unlikely contender…
Rage Against the Machine: ‘Killing In The Name’(2009)
After a relentless run of X Factor winners topping the charts each year, a viral Facebook campaign led to Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 single ‘Killing In The Name’ overtaking that year’s X Factor winner Joe McElderry in an epic battle for the top spot. This also made RATM the first group to earn the Christmas Number Ones accolade with a download-only single.
The Justice Collective: ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ (2012)
Taking a micro approach to raising money for charity, this 2012 hit didn’t solve world hunger but it did raise funds for charities associated with the Hillsborough disaster, the tragic 1989 stadium crush at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. The supergroup features everyone from Macca to Paul Heaton, former Spice Girl Melanie C and Robbie Williams, plus two original members of The Hollies, Bobby Elliott and Tony Hick, who first made ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ famous. The song beat out X Factor winner James Arthur.
Follow the Christmas playlist for the best Christmas songs of all time.