What makes a great Christmas number one?

Updated Monday 15th December 2014

What do the Christmas chart-topping songs by Mr Blobby, Rage Against the Machine and Band Aid all have in common?

Mr Blobby Creative commons image Icon Paul Conneally under CC-BY-NC-2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license The official UK singles chart began in 1952, but many of the songs (as distinct from traditional Christmas carols) which remain popular at Christmas were established before that. ‘Jingle Bells’ by James Lord Pierpoint, dates back to 1857; perhaps setting a trend for ‘jingling bells’ on more recent Christmas tracks. In many of the hits on this list overtly seasonal lyrics are backed up by obvious sounds of Christmas. Sometimes seasonal links are made mainly visually, rather than musically, as in the wintery setting for the Spice Girls’ video for ‘Goodbye’ (Christmas number one in 1998) and Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman’s duet ‘Somethin’ Stupid’ (2001). But there are also plenty of examples of chart-topping singles which don’t seem to be about Christmas at all. Recently there has been strong competition for the number one spot over the festive season, fuelled by social campaigns encouraging support for singles which subvert the dominance of large corporate ventures such as X-factor.

In the video below Jon Morter talks about his successful campaign to get ‘Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ to number one ahead of X-factor winner Joe McElderry in 2009:

Although musically very different, there is perhaps a common feature which explains the popularity of an old song like ‘Jingle Bells’, classic examples such as the BandAid charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984) and even the apparently non-festive ‘Killing in the Name’. Whether overtly ‘Christmassy’ or not, songs that get to number one at Christmas often draw on a spirit of community and togetherness. Similarly to the traditions of pantomime, these songs seek and achieve appeal across generations – perhaps individual musical tastes are abandoned for the sake of family unity - which allows Bob the Builder (2003) and even Mr Blobby (1993) to achieve pop success.

Musically, songs that are successful at Christmas often feature massed backing choirs which allude to religious choral traditions - check out the massed gospel voices backing Alexandra Burke on her rendition of Hallelujah (2008). Choirs have also achieved success in their own right – whether involving celebrities (‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’) or military wives (‘Wherever You Are’ 2011). But Christmas number ones often actively encourage participation akin to the type of informal, communal singing which can be heard at football grounds or pubs. ‘Jingle Bells’ is extremely repetitive (a characteristic of many of the most popular songs) and uses only five pitches in its chorus; the chorus of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ has similar qualities (but with six pitches) making these both relatively easy to sing along to. ‘Can We Fix It?’ by Bob the Builder achieved number one status with a simple four pitch refrain and ‘call and response’ device which involves the listener. Some take a melancholy slant on this theme, such as glam rock band Mud’s 1974 hit ‘Lonely this Christmas’, Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ (1984) and The Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ (1987), number one in Ireland. Even ‘Killing in the Name’ will forever be linked with the strength of communal action against corporate dominance.

No doubt you have your own favourite Christmas song – some of my personal favourites didn’t necessarily make number one at the time of their release but scored highly in this ‘all-time’ chart compiled by the PRS in 2012. You may also be interested in finding out the most played Christmas songs in 2014 on TV, radio, online, bars, gyms (essentially anwhere that plays music).  Recently, Brett Domino has experimented with putting all the key features of a Christmas hit into one song – see what you think!

What's your favourite Christmas number one and why? Have your say in the comments section below.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

How do I live a good life? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC video icon

History & The Arts 

How do I live a good life?

The philosophy regarding how we live a good life is discussed in these animations. 

30 mins
World-Changing Women: Alexandra Kollontai Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

World-Changing Women: Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai, inspired by Marxist ideals, became a member of the revolutionary government and led a campaign to help women working in the appalling textile factories. Read her story here...

What is good writing? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

History & The Arts 

What is good writing?

Does the idea of essay writing put you off the idea of studying? This free course, What is good writing?, will help you to realise that essays are not to be feared. You will learn how important it is to answer the question that is set and that your style of writing is as communicative as possible.

Free course
12 hrs
Finding information in Arts and History Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

History & The Arts 

Finding information in Arts and History

As part of a review of content, this course will be deleted from OpenLearn on 18 May 2017. If you are interested in similar courses, go to the 'Skills' tab and look under 'Skills for Study'. This free course, Finding information in arts and history, will help you to identify and use information in arts and history, whether for your work, study or personal purposes. Experiment with some of the key resources in this subject area, and learn about the skills which will enable you to plan searches for information, so you can find what you are looking for more easily. Discover the meaning of information quality, and learn how to evaluate the information you come across. You will also be introduced to the many different ways of organising your own information, and learn how to reference it properly in your work. Finally, discover how to keep up to date with the latest developments in your area of interest by using tools such as RSS and mailing lists.

Free course
9 hrs
Cider with Rosie Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: By Ida-May Jones © BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Cider with Rosie

Discover Laurie Lee’s glamorous London life and explore the village he made famous.

Doctor Who and human history Creative commons image Icon Doctor Who Spoilers under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Doctor Who and human history

In the Doctor Who historicals, the bad guys often won - no matter what the Doctor tried. Tony Keen looks at why the Doctor can not change the human history.

World-Changing Women: The Biographies Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public Domain article icon

History & The Arts 

World-Changing Women: The Biographies

Delve through these courageous tales of women who changed the world and read the full story the history books left out.

The author at home Creative commons image Icon David Iliff [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license video icon

History & The Arts 

The author at home

Why do people visit museums of writers' homes? Discover the secret life of authors in this short video.

5 mins
Greek Myth in the 'Whoniverse' Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Konstantin Semenov | Dreamstime.com article icon

History & The Arts 

Greek Myth in the 'Whoniverse'

In her tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, Amanda examines how the TV programme has flirted with Greek mythology.