See the Formula That Turned These Popular Christmas Songs Into Holiday Hits

We found Santa's magic formula for creating holiday pop perfection using data. With Christmas in the air and Mariah climbing the charts once again, it's the perfect time to break down all of our favorite holiday hits.

Photo illustration of Mariah Carey and Santa
Photo Illustration by Andrew Williams/NBC

Long before the rise of streaming, Christmas songs like “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Jingle Bell Rock” were some of the most popular of the genre racking up weeks on the charts in the 1960s without ever cracking the top 10.

Now, Christmas songs from years past are seeing new life and climbing the charts decades after their debut. 

Most famously, Mariah Carey scored her 19th #1 hit after “All I Want for Christmas Is You” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in 2019 – over 20 years after it was first released back in 1994. 

Other holiday songs are following suit.

How the Most Popular Christmas Songs in 2020 Shifted Positions Over the Years

Mariah Carey’s #1 song ranks against other Christmas songs that have the most entries within Billboard’s Hot 100. The sleeper hit was released in 1994 and didn’t reach the Hot 100 until 2000 where it entered at #83. The song later went on to reach #1 in 2019, 2020, and early 2021.

Christmas Songs With the Most Entries on the Hot 100 by 2020

Note: The version of “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)” in this graphic refers to the 1959 version. The original in 1958 went #1 and spent 13 weeks on the chart in total. The song was also re-released in 2007 with the Alvin and the Chipmunks film. These recordings are tracked separately in Billboard data.
Source: Billboard
Credit: Andrew Williams/NBC

Record producer Sammy Chand said popular holiday music like “All I Want for Christmas” blends upbeat pop and rock with traditional sacred music. These songs evoke nostalgia with holiday sounds and instrumentation like sleigh bells and chimes and use the ever-popular theme of “love” to dominate the charts. 

“Sound conjures as much nostalgia as any other sense that we have,” Chand said. “That is an important part of that whole visual that a lot of these songs are conjuring through their lyrics as well as just that feeling of love, that feeling of family and that feeling of wanting to belong.”

Wham!’s "Last Christmas," depicting a holiday heartbreak, plays off the theme of love and like Mariah’s tune has seen drastic jumps on the charts with each passing holiday season. The song was released in 1984 and just landed on the Hot 100 for the first time back in 2017. It reached a peak of #9 back in January of 2021. 

The top holiday songs also carefully walk the line of not being too religious or “Christian” so their reach can extend to wider audiences who also find new ways to enjoy and relate to the music.

“Each of these become culturally ambiguous between people that are religious and those that are not,” Chand said. “These songs blur those lines.”

In addition to incorporating elements of pop music, the most popular Christmas songs also share similarities in tone and mood according to a Spotify API analysis.

Spotify measures “energy” by a track’s intensity and activity. Songs with higher energy feel faster and louder. Valence describes the mood of a song. Higher valence sounds happier and more positive while lower valence indicates more of a sad tone. Danceability describes how easy a song is to dance to based on traits like tempo, rhythm stability and beat strength.

The most popular Christmas songs today tend to skew higher in all three of these areas. Songs that have fallen in popularity in recent years tend to lack all of these characteristics.

Upbeat and Happy-sounding Christmas Songs Dominate Today’s Charts

An analysis from Spotify’s API shows how the top five Christmas songs with the most entries within the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100 compare musically to the other Christmas songs with the most entries overall. All of these songs also appear within the bar chart above.

Note: Billboard data as of 2020
Source: Spotify API, Billboard
Credit: Andrew Williams/NBC

Chand said that like rock music, there will also be an emergence of modern themes in Holiday albums like “trap" due to the genre’s rise in popularity over the years.

Artists like Ariana Grande have experimented with this sound in Christmas tunes, but "Santa Tell Me" – her most popular holiday song – still sounds a lot like the top five holiday songs. While the track is from 2014, it’s following the sleeper-hit holiday trend and just peaked at #17 earlier this year. Lyrically, Grande asks Santa to prevent her from falling in love if it won’t last.

"December" from Grande’s second Christmas record has a heavier trap influence, but the racy tune doesn't quite have the same popularity as the more family-friendly "Santa Tell Me” quite yet.

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