Britain in the 1970s was an era of social discord, economic turmoil, and fantastic Christmas music. While many people remember The Winter of Discontent, the freezing cold winter between late 1978 and early 1979 that saw more than 2000 strikes, the winter of 1973 is arguably the runner-up for the UK’s most important winter of the decade—at least for the music industry. It was then that two of the most popular rock bands of the era released seminal Christmas songs and, in doing so, kicked off a festive tradition that continues to this day.
If you’ve ever seen Love Actually, you know what we’re talking about: the coveted Christmas Number One. In the film, washed up rocker Billy Mack (Billy Nighy) stages a comeback by reworking the Troggs’ classic “Love is All Around” into a festive diddly, aptly renamed “Christmas is All Around,” which he hopes to get to number one in time for Christmas Day. What viewers abroad may not realize is that the battle for the Christmas Number One is a very real British tradition—one that folks anticipate every year almost as much as a visit from Santa itself.
OK, so that might be an exaggeration. Still, the Christmas Number One is a big deal. Each year, Brits wager millions of pounds on which song will top the charts on Christmas Day.
A rock rivalry is born
It wasn’t always like this, though. For the first two decades of the charts’ existence, which artist was in the top spot on Christmas Day was of as much interest as who was number one on any other day of the year. The first British charts keeping track of record sales were established in 1952. Fittingly, the first Christmas Number One was also the first number one in British charts history: Al Martino’s “Here in my Heart.” Over the next two decades, artists such as Harry Belafonte, Conway Twitty, and Elvis Presley would each claim the Christmas Number One—with The Beatles becoming the only act in history to do it a record four times.
Still, it wasn’t until 1973 that the public began really paying attention to the Christmas number one. It was then that two of the biggest bands in the country, Slade and Wizzard, both released festive records: “Merry Xmas Everybody” and “I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday,” respectively. These songs were smash hits and became instant classics that are still popular to this day.
Fans of both groups were eager to see their favorite tune top the charts, setting off a race for number one which culminated with Slade claiming the top spot on Christmas Day. Thus, a rock rivalry birthed a tradition which continues even now. Every year, who will be number one on Christmas Day is hotly debated and eagerly anticipated—though not always with the utmost seriousness.
Feed the world with charity Singles
You may think that, given it is the Christmas Number One, carols and holiday songs would routinely top the charts. However, the British public rarely takes anything quite so literally (or seriously). According to the Official Charts Company, “in 69 years of Christmas chart-toppers, 12 are genuine Christmas songs, eight are by TV talent show winners, three are by choirs, and five could be classed as novelty singles.”
Given that Christmas is often seen as the season of giving, it is no surprise that charity singles do remarkably well this time of year. Fifty-seven charity singles have topped the British charts throughout the years, yet it was a Christmas Number One that kicked off the tradition. In 1984, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure gathered together a supergroup named Band Aid that included George Michael, Boy George, Duran Duran, and more to produce “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which topped the charts. To date, it remains the second best-selling British single of all time.
More recently, novelty act LadBaby has found historic success with charity singles. The YouTuber has claimed the Christmas Number One for three years running—becoming the first act since the Spice Girls (who did it in the 1990s) to do so—by reworking classic rock songs as odes to that ubiquitous British treat, the sausage roll.
Mr. Blobby Is Coming to Town
LadBaby hardly has a monopoly on novelty songs, though. In 2000, “Can We Fix It?” by Bob the Builder topped the charts. Most famously—or infamously, depending on whom you ask—is “Mr. Blobby,” the eponymous song by what can only be described as McDonald’s Grimace on an acid trip. The character—an anthropomorphic polka-dotted blob—was a character on the popular BBC television program Noel’s House Party, and only said “Blobby.”
“Mr. Blobby” is routinely ranked as one of the worst Christmas Number Ones of all time, but many would argue the worst era was undoubtedly the 2000s. Between 2005 and 2014, seven of the 10 Christmas Number Ones were claimed by that year’s winner of Simon Cowell’s The X Factor. These include Leona Lewis covering American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson’s single “A Moment Like This” in 2006 and Sam Bailey covering Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” in 2013.
In 2009—fed up with the predictability and commercial calculation of the show’s producers and Cowell’s record label—fans revolted. A social media campaign propelled rock band Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name” to number one, which was a stunning upset for The X Factor brand. The year 2003 saw a similar shock, with “Mad World” by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules beating out more predictable pop fare.
The 2021 Christmas Number One Contenders
Will 2021 see another upset? The bookies don’t think so. LadBaby—who this year teamed up with Ed Sheeran and Elton John to rework the duo’s own Christmas single, “Merry Christmas”—released their latest single on December 17, and it is expected to claim the number one spot.
Other contenders include Sheeran and John with their original single, ABBA, and a song called “Laura’s Gone” by Finn K, a singer-songwriter from North Wales who teamed up with the Have A Word podcast for the song. “We jokingly said we’d go for Christmas Number One, hoping just to get in the top 40,” Finn told the Daily Post. “But it’s just gone mental, it’s really surreal.”
Even if Have a Word can’t hold off LadBaby, they can take comfort in knowing they’re in good company. Many famous Christmas songs never made it to the top of the charts, but have still gone on to become classics, including The Pogues’s “Fairytale of New York.” For others, it has taken decades to capture the top spot: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” was released in 1994, but didn’t hit number one on the UK charts until December 2020, more than a quarter-century after its release. Meanwhile, Wham!’s beloved “Last Christmas,” which was originally released in 1984, didn’t hit number one in the UK until January 1, 2021.
Whichever song eventually claims the number one spot in 2021—and with it, a place in British pop culture history—whether it deserves the honor will be debated for years to come. For the only thing that is truly certain about the Christmas Number One is that people will argue about it. And nothing says Christmas like fighting with your family. It’s a cherished holiday tradition—as cherished as the Christmas Number One.