here’s why mariah carey’s 'all i want for christmas' is the saddest holiday song of all time
'This person doesn't even know that Mariah loves them. Is this person in another relationship? Why can't they be together?'
Every year around this time, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” begins its annual ascent up the charts, and whether you’re at a party or at home or at the mall, the familiar 13-note twinkle that leads off the anthem is an official signal that the holidays are just around the corner - and that a good time is waiting to be had.
Released in November 1994 as the lead single from her first holiday album, “Merry Christmas,” the song, co-written by Carey, has become one of the few modern pop tracks to find a place in the holiday canon, and continues to be a favorite among both Carey’s devoted “Lambily” and casual fans and listeners alike.
But for all its cheery rhythms, jingling bells and 60s girl group-esque vocals, “All I Want For Christmas” might not be the song you think it is. Sure, it may sound merry and bright, but after almost two and a half decades later, it’s time someone finally said it: “All I Want For Christmas” is the saddest holiday song of all time.
“The song is a declaration of love, but a love that may be unrequited,” says Kathleen Newman-Bremang, the Senior Staff Writer for Refinery29 Canada and a former television producer covering celebrity and pop culture. “The line. ‘I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know’ is the most gut-wrenching,” Newman-Bremang says, “because it implies that the love isn't reciprocated, or worse, that this person doesn't even know that Mariah loves them. Is this person in another relationship? Why can't they be together?”
Though it’s often interpreted as a love song, the lyrics to “All I Want For Christmas” share more in common with a melancholy ballad, telling the story of a woman (presumably Carey) who is seemingly alone and despondent, unable to find happiness in anything around her, until her loved one returns home. “I don't care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree,” she wails, “Santa Claus won't make me happy with a toy on Christmas Day.”
The second verse continues the lament: “I won't even wish for snow,” she sings. “I'm just gonna keep on waiting underneath the mistletoe.”
There’s a pleading and desperation in Carey’s voice as the song builds to its crescendo. Just listen to the way she wails on the bridge, “Santa won't you bring me the one I really need? Won't you please bring my baby to me?” You can almost hear her voice breaking.
“I think the song is beautiful, but sad,” says Davina Kotulski, an LA-based clinical psychologist and life coach, who counts Carey as one of our favorite artists. “It reflects our childlike desires to have our wishes fulfilled, and the reality that not all of our wishes will come true.”
“The song could easily just be a nice way to say ‘Hey, I love you and want you to myself this Christmas,’" adds Newman-Bremang, “or it could be a sad message of one lonely heart pining for a love they'll never receive. It really could go either way.”
“Merry Christmas” was released a year after “Music Box,” which to this day remains one of Carey’s best-selling albums, with almost 30 million copies sold worldwide. “Music Box” spawned the singer’s now-signature anthem, “Hero,” but when she was recording the album, Carey initially turned down the track, finding it “too schmaltzy,” according to numerous interviews she has given about the recording experience.
The tensions with her record label -- and then-husband Tommy Mottola -- would further come to a head when Mottola proposed a Christmas album as a follow up to “Music Box.”
“Mariah was not sure about it at first, as it was so early in her career,” says Mark Sundstrom, a pop culture expert and former Digital Director at Fuse, “but she took Tommy’s advice (as she usually did at the time) and tried it out.”
Carey’s hesitance to record a Christmas album was further exacerbated by the fact that she was a fledgling songwriter, who had penned almost all of her #1 singles (the exception being her cover of The Jackson 5’s, “I’ll Be There”), in addition to most of the other cuts she had recorded over the years. Christmas albums traditionally contained updated versions of familiar carols and standards, and while Carey had found success with “I’ll Be There,” she wasn’t interested in recording an album of covers. But Sony -- and Mottola -- had made up their minds, so in the summer of 1994, Carey and her then-frequent songwriting partner, Walter Afanasieff, set up a Christmas tree, and hung some lights and ornaments in an upstate New York recording studio for inspiration, and got down to recording. Carey picked out some of her favorite carols and Christian hymns, but made it a priority to write a few new songs too. One of them was “All I Want For Christmas.” According to Afanasieff, the song was written in 15 minutes.
“I did have to sit back and go, ‘What do I really want to write about Christmas?’”Carey explains, in a recent Genius interview, about the inspiration behind the song. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna write from the place of that kid that didn’t grow up with any money, that always wanted to have the most festive Christmas. And somehow people I was related to would come in and ruin the holiday every year.’”
Carey has always been openly vulnerable in her lyrics, exploring themes of loss (“Vanishing” from her 1990 self-titled debut album), being biracial (“Outside” from 1997’s “Butterfly”), forgiveness (“Petals” from 1999’s “Rainbow”) and abandonment (“Reflections” from her recently-rebounded #1 album, “Glitter”), among others. Along the way, she’s topped the charts with uptempo feel-good tracks as well (see: “Fantasy,” “Honey,” “It’s Like That”). But Carey’s sweet spot lies in that opaque space where she’s neither cute nor coy; never fully revealing all, but not afraid to show off a few scars either.
Which brings us back to “All I Want For Christmas.” Though it’s undercut by a frolicking beat and cheery “oohs and “ahhs,” the lyrics are decidedly more crestfallen, addressing themes of isolation, emptiness and feeling like an outsider (“The sound of children’s laughter fills the air and everyone is singing” / “Santa won't you bring me the one I really need?”). Carey has never said much more about the lyrical inspiration behind the song, only mentioning that she wanted to create a “timeless” track. But whether she was writing out of frustration with her record label, or lamenting the state of her marriage (Carey and Mottola eventually divorced in 1997), it’s clear the holidays weren’t always -- to borrow one of Carey’s words -- so festive.
“I think the sadness or longing in ‘All I Want For Christmas’ comes from two places: both her knowledge of soulful holiday classics, and also her own childhood,” says Sundstrom. “Mariah grew up in a single-parent home without much money, often experiencing things most children don't have to experience.”
“I believe part of the feeling behind ‘All I Want For Christmas’ is Mariah being in touch with that inner child who wanted the big, happy, family Christmas that's depicted in movies and on TV, that she didn't necessarily have growing up,” he continues. “I also think that's part of why now, as an adult, she takes Christmas very seriously, for herself and for her children. She wants to give them, and herself, the big, memorable holidays she didn't always have.”
“I think that there's definitely a deeper and more vulnerable side to Mariah,” adds Newman-Bremang. “We saw it earlier this year when she was open about her mental health struggles. Mariah Carey is a diva, for sure. But it's also true that she's a human being with feelings and flaws, and just because she is a diva, doesn't mean that she doesn't have depth. I think there's a bit more to this song than its melody or music video may suggest.”
“All I Want For Christmas” failed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 during its original release, because it was not released commercially as a single, and thereby ineligible for inclusion, per the rules of the day. But in the years since, it’s made a spirited sprint to the top of the charts every holiday season, peaking so far at #7 this year. If there’s any #JusticeForAIWFC, the song will find its way to #1, giving Carey her 19th number one hit, and placing her just one song behind The Beatles for the most chart toppers of all time.
“All I Want For Christmas” is now the best-selling holiday single of all time too. According to The Economist, Carey has earned a whopping $60 million from the song since its release, meaning she could stop touring and recording completely and still make more than $3 million a year just from the song’s royalties alone.
The key to the song’s success may be how the melody and production has transcended the downcast lyrics. “Everybody understands longing, desire, love, or just missing somebody,” ABC News Radio’s Andrea Dresdale told Vogue in 2015. “It’s an upbeat song. So many Christmas songs are not. Many of them are ballads, some of them are depressing, but this one sounds like a party.”
Another reason for the song’s success: as much fun as it is to sing along to, the song’s lyrics are also remarkably relatable, especially at this time of year.
“Christmas is a time where people fantasize about perfect romance and perfect family interactions,” says Kotulski. “We want our experiences to be like Norman Rockwell paintings, and so it amplifies people’s sense of loneliness and failure if they’re single or if their relationships don’t measure up to what they’re seeing on TV or in the Hallmark cards. We try to create these picture perfect memories, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to let go and it’s hard to move on [from a painful experience],” Kotulski continues, “but we can learn to comfort ourselves, to be our own best friends, and to find love and connection with others.”
Perhaps that’s the beauty of this song -- and the beauty of Carey’s storied catalog of songs in general. By opening up about her struggles and writing about her pain, Carey has made it okay for others to express -- and admit to -- similar feelings as well. And whether it’s the shared experience of unrequited love, or just a cozy holiday tune you can’t get out of your head, Carey has managed to find a way to bring people together, and hopefully, to lift her own spirits as well. After all, the opposite of feeling lonely, is feeling connected.
With December 25 just days away, you’ll be hearing “All I Want For Christmas” a lot. And this year, you may finally be hearing it a little differently. As for Carey, she may have written the saddest holiday song of all time, but don’t worry too much about her. She’ll be just fine.