What is the most popular Christmas song of all time?

You can read the original article on the St Edmund Hall blog here.

We all have a favourite. Whether you wish for some Mariah on Christmas morning, or the drunken ramblings of the Pogues the night before, we do love a good Christmas song. So much so, in fact, that several TV shows with names such as ‘what is the UK’s favourite Christmas song?’ not only exist, but are repeated seemingly without end – or providing an actual answer – every year without fail.

But fear not, being the mathematician, and Christmas-lover that I am, I’ve decided to lend my expertise to this most important of questions, by creating an equation to provide a definitive answer once and for all. The old favourites ring true, but the final standings may just surprise you…

The shortlist of songs competing for the award is composed of the top 5 most streamed Christmas songs as of 3rd December 2021, plus the 5 most-streamed Christmas songs released in the last decade. For each song, sales (either physical or electronic) are included, alongside streams (where 100 streams = 1 sale) and YouTube views (600 views = 1 sale)*. To make it as fair as possible (and to give anything released this millennium a chance), the final number of sales are then scaled according to the number of years since the songs release. This gives the final formula:

Now the rules of the game are clear, let’s get started! Here are the top 5 most-streamed Christmas songs according to the Official UK Chart:

All I Want For Christmas Is YouMariah Carey248 million
Last ChristmasWham!220 million
Fairytale of New YorkPogues ft. Kirsty Maccoll170 million
Merry Christmas EveryoneShakin’ Stevens136 million
Do They Know It’s ChristmasBand Aid130 million

How many did you get? “Merry Christmas Everyone” is a sure-fire classic, but I’m guessing not many of you (myself included) could have named “Shakin’ Stevens” as the artist…

We have to go a little further down the chart to get some entries from the past decade – well, apart from Mr Christmas himself, Michael Buble, who’s song “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” comes in at number 6 with 128 million streams. The next highest entries from ‘modern’ songs are shown below.

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like ChristmasMichael Buble128 million
Santa Tell MeAriana Grande113 million
One More SleepLeona Lewis92 million
Underneath The TreeKelly Clarkson85 million
MistletoeJustin Bieber82 million

Perhaps not too surprising to see two of the biggest artists of the 2010’s – Justin Bieber and Arianna Grande – featuring prominently, although Leona Lewis and Kelly Clarkson certainly caught me by surprise.

Given the nature of the scoring system, the 10 songs mentioned so far are going to form our shortlist. We have the golden oldies versus the young pretenders, the household names versus the new kids on the block, the – dare I say it – songs of your parents versus the songs of your kids(?), but who will come out on top?

The second category is YouTube views. The raw numbers here are much higher, as even a 5 second glance counts, but that’s why they are scaled so dramatically. The top 2 from the streaming list remain unchanged, but the new generation comes in hot with Justin, Arianna and Michael Buble completing the top 5.

All I Want For Christmas Is YouMariah Carey712 million
Last ChristmasWham!654 million
MistletoeJustin Bieber441 million
Santa Tell MeAriana Grande243 million
It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like ChristmasMichael Buble90 million
Do They Know It’s ChristmasBand Aid81 million
Fairytale of New YorkPogues ft. Kirsty Maccoll79 million
Underneath The TreeKelly Clarkson31 million
One More SleepLeona Lewis21 million
Merry Christmas EveryoneShakin’ Stevens15 million

The final – and most important – measure is record sales. This is of course most likely to favour the older songs, but as the total score is still to be scaled by the age of the song, don’t count the new hits out just yet!

All I Want For Christmas Is YouMariah Carey19,550,000
Last ChristmasWham!7,150,000
Do They Know It’s ChristmasBand Aid6,970,000
MistletoeJustin Bieber4,310,000
Santa Tell MeAriana Grande4,100,000
Fairytale of New YorkPogues ft. Kirsty Maccoll2,410,000
Merry Christmas EveryoneShakin’ Stevens1,980,000
It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like ChristmasMichael Buble1,380,000
One More SleepLeona Lewis1,000,000
Underneath The TreeKelly Clarkson890,000

Once again, Mariah reigns supreme, closely followed by the 1984 classics from Wham! and Band Aid. However, another strong showing from Gen Z in the form of Justin Bieber and Arianna Grande means they could yet sneak it… Let’s find out with the final calculations!

The last step to complete the mathematical formula is to divide the total number of scaled sales, by the number of years since the release of the song. This gives a value for the average number of ‘sales’ per year for each of the shortlist, which is to be used as the final score. Here are the results:

All I Want For Christmas Is YouMariah Carey859,877
Santa Tell MeAriana Grande805,000
MistletoeJustin Bieber586,500
It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like ChristmasMichael Buble312,222
Last ChristmasWham!282,162
One More SleepLeona Lewis244,375
Do They Know It’s ChristmasBand Aid227,162
Underneath The TreeKelly Clarkson223,958
Fairytale of New YorkPogues ft. Kirsty Maccoll124,755
Merry Christmas EveryoneShakin’ Stevens93,472

There you have it! Mariah Carey retains her crown as the undisputed Queen of Christmas. Although, I wouldn’t recommend resting on her laurels with Arianna Grande in a very close second. It seems a changing of the (Christmas) guard is almost upon us…

In the eternal words of Shakin’ Stevens, Merry Christmas everyone!

*The decision to count 100 streams and 600 YouTube views each as one sale follows the practice of the Official UK Chart. Since July 2014, 100 streams of a song by a paid user and 600 from a non-paid user each equate to 1 sale in the standard charts. Since the majority of users of music streaming services are now paid users (I bet most of you have a Spotify/Apple Music/Amazon music account), whilst most people use YouTube for free, I hope you’ll agree the scaling decisions I’ve made are reasonable.

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