The UK Number One Christmas single is a hotly contested honour – presumably representing a substantial number of sales for the lucky artist. Looking back at the Christmas charts reveals some interesting patterns.
All of the UK charts (singles, albums, various specialist categories, etc) are available at the Official Charts website. It is straightforward to extract the Christmas singles charts going back to 1952 (when Al Martino was the Christmas number one with “Here in my Heart”). At the time of writing (just before Christmas 2021), the latest Christmas chart available is that for 2020.
Perhaps the strangest chart is that for 1953. On December 25 that year, Frankie Laine was at number one with “Answer Me”. At number two was another version of “Answer Me”, performed by David Whitfield! Even more bizarrely, at numbers 4 and 5 were two versions of “Swedish Rhapsody”, by Ray Martin and Mantovani respectively. And as if that wasn’t enough duplication, the same chart contained three versions of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – by the Beverley Sisters (at number 7), by Jimmy Boyd (at 8), and by Billy Cotton and his Band (at 11).
Some duplication seems to be quite common at Christmas, with competing versions of the same song in the chart at the same time,1 although it is unusual for two versions of the same song to be in the top ten. This happened in 1958 (with “Tom Dooley” by Lonnie Donegan at number 3, and by the Kingston Trio at number 6), but then not again until “Wonderwall” in 1995 (by Mike Flowers Pops at number 2 and Oasis at number 7), and then the rival versions of “Hallelujah” in 2008, when the X Factor winner Alexandra Burke narrowly beat the original Jeff Buckley version to the Christmas number one slot.
Several songs have appeared in the Christmas charts in many different years. Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” has appeared in 24 Christmas charts. “Fairytale of New York” (The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl) and “Merry Christmas Everyone” (Shakin’ Stevens) have both appeared in 16 years, and the list continues with a predictable list of festive records familiar from any Christmas compilation album. The first one on the list without an obviously festive theme is “Stay Another Day” by East 17, which has been in the Christmas singles charts 11 times.
The list of Christmas number ones is a mixture of festive songs, novelty records,2 and other songs that happened to peak at this time of year. 2009’s number one was essentially a protest song (“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine) whose aim was to keep the X Factor winner off the Christmas number one spot.
Up to and including 1995, the Christmas number one was always (without exception) either number one or two the previous week, having already been in the chart for some time (typically 3-8 weeks). In 1996, for some reason, there was a significant change in this pattern. 20 of the 25 Christmas number ones since 1996 have been new entries straight to number one.3 Only two of the other five had been in the charts for more than two weeks previously.
Only one record has reached the Christmas number one slot twice – Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975 and 1991. Two other songs have been Christmas number one for different artists – “Mary’s Boy Child” for Harry Belafonte in 1957 and for Boney M in 1978, and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for Band Aid (1984), Band Aid II (1989) and Band Aid 20 (2004).
The Beatles had four Christmas number ones, including three in successive years (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1963, “I Feel Fine” in 1964, and “Day Tripper / We Can Work it Out” in 1965).4 The only other artists to have had three successive Christmas number ones are the Spice Girls (in 1996-8 with “2 Become 1”, “Too Much”, and “Goodbye”) and Ladbaby, which has held the title for the last three years, with “We Built this City” in 2018, “I Love Sausage Rolls” in 2019, and “Don’t Stop me Eatin'” in 2020. They are trying again this year, with “Sausage Rolls for Everyone” being released in the week before Christmas. Will 2021 make this a record-breaking run of four?5
- This became more likely as the charts got longer. From 1956 it was the top-30, then it became the top-50 from 1960, the top-75 from 1978, and the top-100 from 1983.
- Including “Mr Blobby” (1993), Postman Pat’s “Can we Fix It?” (2000), and Benny Hill’s “Ernie” (1971).
- Including one that was number 80 the previous week.
- Their fourth was “Hello Goodbye” in 1967, Tom Jones having broken their run in 1966 with “The Green Green Grass of Home”.
- At the time of writing they were odds-on favourites to be number one when the Christmas chart is unveiled on 24 December.