Halloween is over, the leaves have mainly fallen from the trees, and Mariah Carey has officially defrosted. As the singer gleefully sang in a video she posted to Twitter, it’s time for her hit holiday single to take over the airways.
In 1994, Mariah Carey surprised everyone—including herself—by coming out with what would quickly become a Christmas classic. “All I Want for Christmas is You” was catchy and timeless and, at the same time, distinctly “Mariah.” No one expected it of such a young artist, but perhaps it was the singer’s deep love for the holiday season and her dedication to getting the feeling right while channeling the melody and the words that made everything come together in a way that now seems like destiny. Here’s the story of that inescapable holiday song.
1. Mariah Carey thought it was too soon in her career to make a Christmas album.
In 1993, Mariah Carey was enjoying the success of her third best-selling album Music Box when she and her management team, comprised of Sony CEO and then-husband Tommy Mottola, began mapping out possible future projects. Someone suggested a Christmas album, but conventional wisdom was that artists don’t record Christmas music at the peak of their careers; that was something they saved for later in life, as their popularity was waning. However, Carey decided to ignore conventional wisdom and give a Christmas album a try.
2. The original plan was to simply cover classic holiday songs.
At first, according to a 2019 Amazon Music mini documentary on the song, Carey and her team thought she might just put her unique stamp on Christmas songs already in the public domain. “To come up with an original holiday song that becomes a hit?” well-known producer and American Idol judge Randy Jackson said in the documentary. “Next to impossible.” But Mariah Carey isn’t the type to balk at a challenge, and she got to work.
“What I did was, I said, ‘Let me try and get into the Christmas spirit,” Carey recalled. She was living in a house in upstate New York at the time and, even though it wasn’t Christmas, she decorated a little tree and played 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life on the TV downstairs while she experimented with a melody on the piano upstairs. She made a list of things she had associated with Christmas since childhood: “I wanted [the song] to feel like something I could have grown up listening to.”
3. “All I Want for Christmas is You” has a strong 1960s influence.
Instead of sounding like it came out of 1994, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” ended up having a very recognizable 1960s vibe. “I was trying to do my own version of the ‘Wall of Sound,’ those background vocal parts that become almost the lead,” Carey said. She’s referring specifically to notorious music producer Phil Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” effect, and most critics would probably agree that the song’s vocals are also reminiscent of Spector-produced female groups like The Ronettes or The Crystals.
“It was not of the time, and it is not of the time,” Carey said of the song’s non-‘90s sound. Two videos were made for the song—the full-color version that pretty much everyone knows, and a black-and-white version (which you can watch above) in which Carey wears white go-go boots, a ‘60s bouffant hairstyle, and a belted minidress as a nod to Ronnie Spector.
4. Before Mariah Carey recorded “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” she decked the studio out in Christmas decorations.
Much like when she began writing the song, Carey wanted to make sure all the accoutrements of Christmas were around her when “All I Want for Christmas is You” was recorded—even though it was August. But she wanted the authenticity of the Christmas feeling to come through in the song. “The studio looked like Christmas,” producer Randy Jackson said. “The temperature was cold. There were, like, ornaments, there were Christmas trees, there were Christmas candles.”
5. “All I Want for Christmas is You” has become a modern “standard” of Christmas songs.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the most downloaded holiday single of all time. It’s estimated the singer earns about $3 million from the tune each holiday season. The song is so culturally significant, the Library of Congress inducted it into its National Recording Registry in 2023.
6. Mariah Carey’s deep love of the Christmas season, and always wanting to make it perfect, played into the song’s creation.
“Mariah Carey is Christmas,” Randy Jackson said in the Amazon Music documentary. “I used to call her Mariah Claus.” However, the winter holiday season is a difficult time for many people and families and, growing up, Carey was no stranger to that. “The thing is, I always wanted Christmas to be perfect,” Carey said. “And I always looked forward to the holidays. And then I have this incredibly dysfunctional family that would ruin it every year. Not my mom—my mom would try to make it fun—but we didn’t have a lot of money, so sometimes she would wrap up fruit and whatever it was she could afford. And I was like: When I grow up, I’m never going to let that happen. I’m going to make Christmas perfect every year.”
7. Mariah Carey’s favorite line in “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is “I won’t even wish for snow.”
“[It’s my favorite line] because I always wish for snow,” Carey explained in the documentary. “I always want it to be, like, a special, festive winter wonderland.” Now that she has her own children, Carey goes to Aspen for Christmas and even hires real reindeer to take her family on sleigh rides.
8. Mariah Carey celebrated the song’s 25th anniversary with a tour and the album’s reissue.
In addition to a reissue of Merry Christmas, the album on which “All I Want for Christmas Is You” appears, Carey celebrated the 25th anniversary with a limited tour with dates at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, as well as concerts in Atlantic City, Washington D.C., Connecticut, and Boston, with the tour wrapping up at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The double-album reissue features a previously unreleased concert at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, as well as new remixes of the album’s various tracks.
9. “All I Want for Christmas is You” broke three Guinness World Records in 2019.
In 2019, 25 years after the song’s release, Carey broke records for the highest-charting holiday song on the Billboard U.S. Hot 100 by a solo artist, the most streamed track on Spotify in 24 hours (female), and the most weeks in the UK singles Top 10 chart for a Christmas song. Guinness World Records presented Carey with the titles during one of her Caesars Colosseum shows in Las Vegas in November.
10. “All I Want for Christmas is You” finally hit No. 1 in 2019.
Although it’s been around since 1994, “All I Want for Christmas is You” first hit the Billboard 100 in the year 2000, and it wasn’t until the past decade that it started becoming as wildly popular as it currently is. It reached the top 10 for the first time in 2017, and in 2018 it came out at No. 3. Finally, on December 16, 2019, it hit No. 1 for the first time ever, a spot it again held in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
A version of this story originally ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.