Five Burning Questions: The Holiday 100

There’s no place like the Billboard charts for the holiday music season, and as always, our Holiday 100 is back and keeping track of the biggest seasonal hits of each week through the New Year.


This year, it’s once again the usual suspects looking to steal the Christmas No. 1 — Mariah Carey‘s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is on top this week (chart dated Dec. 10), followed by Brenda Lee‘s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and Bobby Helms‘ “Jingle Bell Rock.” They’re also the three highest of the six holiday songs in the top 10 of this week’s Billboard Hot 100, though none of them have yet captured pole position, which still belongs to Taylor Swift’s secular smash “Anti-Hero.”

When, if at all, will one of the holiday perennials take over on the Hot 100? And why do newer songs never seem to be able to grow in momentum on the chart? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. As it always does this time of year, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is knocking on the door of the Hot 100’s top spot, moving from No. 5 to No. 2 on the chart this week. But it has a formidable hit blocking its path this time, with Taylor Swift’s six-week No. 1, “Anti-Hero.” Do you think it will depose “Anti-Hero” next week? If not, how long do you think it will take — if it does so at all?

Katie Atkinson: Oh, it’s going back to No. 1, dahling, and I think next week is the week. The current tracking period is the first full week of December, and Christmas music listeners have made the full transition. Time to get out the garland and ornaments for the Hot 100, because its most treasured Christmas star is about to be placed back on top.

Jason Lipshutz: Yeah, next week feels like the week — and that’s an unscientific read on the situation, but the “Anti-Hero”/“All I Want for Christmas Is You” battle reminds me of last year’s showdown between Mariah Carey’s holiday juggernaut and Adele’s multi-week chart-topper “Easy on Me.” “Christmas” took a few weeks into December to dislodge “Easy” during its run, and I’d surmise that it will do the same to “Anti-Hero” starting next week.

Glenn Rowley: “Anti-Hero” might be able to hold onto the crown for one more week but judging by her song’s massive gains this week, it’s clear Mariah just wants the No. 1 for her own (again). And as Christmas gets closer, the festive fervor will only go from high-pitched to full-blown whistle tone. Though I admit there’s an alternate reality in my daydreaming where Taylor’s Midnights smash holds off “ All I Want for Christmas Is You” by becoming the definitive anthem to soundtrack a Newsies-style antitrust revolution by the Swifties, a la “Seize the Day.” 

Andrew Unterberger: Mariah Carey is certainly looming, but I wouldn’t count out some last-minute sales/discounts/remixes emerging from Swift late in the week to help get her the edge she needs here. She’s done it successfully a couple times during the “Anti-Hero” run already, and she’s likely extra motivated this week, as the song is just one week away from tying “Blank Space” as her longest-running Hot 100 No. 1 to date. Once Mariah grabs the top spot, it might be close to a month before she gives it back — and who knows what else will emerge as competition in the meantime — so Swift is gonna want every week she can get for “Anti-Hero” before then. But within 2-3 weeks, it’ll be out of her hands, and Carey’s reign will commence regardless.

Christine Werthman: Swift’s hit has staying power, but Carey’s is coming like a freight train — or perhaps the Polar Express. “Anti-Hero” has been the No. 1 for the last six weeks, but it is dropping in streams, while “Christmas” is on the rise. In fact, Carey’s juggernaut is currently the most-streamed song in the U.S., and as the days tick by to Dec. 25, Carey’s smash will continue to climb, bludgeoning all that stand in its way with a stocking full of holiday cheer. It will be No. 1 soon enough. 

2. While Mariah leads on the Holiday 100, the usual challengers appear just below her in Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock.” If you had to bet on this top three either being the same for each of the next five holiday seasons, or being disrupted at some point — either by an order switch or a different song — which way would you wager?

Katie Atkinson: I’ve always wanted “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to score even one week at No. 1 on the Hot 100, where it’s so far peaked at No. 2, but Mariah’s merry monster is a hard one to overcome. Lee recorded the song at just 13 years old and is a spry 77 today, and it would be so sweet for her to get her poinsettias while she’s still with us. But as a betting woman, I think that top three will remain in the same order for the next five yuletide seasons.

Jason Lipshutz: I’d guess that some time in the next half-decade, one of the two golden oldies (more likely “Jingle Bell Rock”) gets swapped out with something more recent, while the others persist as part of the big three. That’s not to say that either one will fall off entirely, but betting on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock” to stay this locked into the big three, when there’s so much competition for those spots, seems improbable. Of course, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” isn’t going anywhere — that’s going to remain one of the three highest-charting holiday songs each year for the next decade, if not just stay at No. 1 that whole time.

Glenn Rowley: The short answer is a holly jolly nope. At this point, the Holiday 100 feels a bit more like Groundhog’s Day than anything else, and the longer these three tracks dominate the season, the more entrenched they seem to become. 

Andrew Unterberger: Betting on stasis with the Holiday 100 is usually the smart play, so I’ll say yes, that’s the top three for the next half-decade. That said, you never know what can pop from out of nowhere these days — and even if a new song isn’t yet powerful enough to run with the big reindeer on an annual basis, it can post a big-enough debut to at least elbow its way in with them temporarily, like Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” did last decade.

Christine Werthman: Carey will remain No. 1 for the next five holiday seasons. Looking back on this week from 2017 until now, Brenda Lee held the No. 2 spot five out of six times, bumped to No. 3 only once by Andy Williams in 2018. Bobby Helms could be the wild card, as he was absent from the top three in 2018 and 2019. I’d bet that Carey and Lee will hold fast but that the third spot will be up for grabs for a new old song over the next few years. 

3. Though Mariah’s Christmas classic will be celebrating its 30th birthday in a couple years, there are still only three songs newer than it in the top 40 of this week’s Holiday 100 – Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” (#10), Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” (#14) and Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe” (#40). Why do you think it remains so hard for newer songs — even “newer” songs that are now a decade or two old themselves — to break into the Christmas canon? Do you see it getting easier anytime in the near or even distant future?

Katie Atkinson: There are a lot of people who assume “All I Want” is a Christmas standard, the way it recalls Phil Spector’s 1960s hits for The Ronettes or Darlene Love, and I think that classic sound is what people are yearning for in their holiday listening. The next-closest new song, “Underneath the Tree,” plays the exact same card. So while a few contemporary Christmas songs will break through here and there (*NSYNC’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” comes to mind as one that burned bright and then fizzled out with the boy-band era), the ones that have longevity are the ones that bring the most Noel nostalgia.

Jason Lipshutz: The magic of holiday songs is in their familiarity — the way we trot them out for a few weeks each year, recognize the time-honored melodies and associate them with a special season. Understandably, that canon is difficult to change, or even increase with new material. There’s no doubt that some new holiday songs will eventually earn that nostalgic glow as more years pass — “Underneath the Tree” feels like a likely candidate to keep growing each year — but the process is slow for a reason, and I doubt it’s one that radically evolves in the coming years.

Glenn Rowley: It’s crazy to think that all three of those “newer” songs are 8-10 years old at this point. I mean, Kelly’s even given us a second (stellar!) Christmas album since she released “Underneath the Tree.” Much like a too-rich cup of cocoa, the biggest obstacle to storming the modern Christmas songbook could be over-saturation. Because from the moment Mariah declares, ‘It’s time,’ there’s a limited number of days to cram in all the holiday music you can handle. And would you rather go for something cozy and familiar or something new?

Andrew Unterberger: My working theory with this is that music fans don’t really ever seek out their own holiday music when they’re young — it’s just something that’s passively in their background of their lives for 1-2 months a year, with selections usually made by folks decades their senior. So everyone just grows up with their parents’ holiday music, and they never really even think twice about it — and when, decades later, it’s their own turn to decide what holiday music is going to get played, that’s still what they sentimentally default to. It takes a truly extraordinary new Christmas song to be as satisfying as that type of nostalgia, and that’s why you only get a handful a decade that prove to have any real staying power.

Christine Werthman: Christmas is a season for nostalgia. It’s not like Halloween, where costumes fluctuate depending on the hottest movie or meme of the moment. In fact, if Christmas were a Halloween costume, it would be a ghost — every single year. Familiarity is key for Christmas success, and I suspect the old guard will be holding down the prime slots on the Holiday 100 for many years to come. 

4. We often talk about the possibility of newer songs rising on the Holiday 100, but in truth, it seems like older songs have as good a chance of catching a second wind — particularly in 2022, when new hits can come from any time. Is there a song on this week’s chart from earlier than Mariah Carey’s “Christmas” that you might be looking at as a contender to rise in the holiday rankings in the years to come?

Katie Atkinson: Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” peaked at No. 3 on the Holiday 100 back in 2012, but it hasn’t cracked that top three in a while. I think it should rightfully work its way back up, just as Bad Bunny is also bringing Spanish-language hits to the top of our charts. I also think one of my personal favorites, The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride,” should finally crack the Holiday 100 top five for the first time (it’s so far peaked at No. 8) because it’s just so fun and festive. Climb aboard the sleigh, people!

Jason Lipshutz: Maybe Wham!’s “Last Christmas” never grows to chart-dominating stature, but I could see that song getting bigger each year, as a holiday song that’s fiercely loved and also ripe for some sort of viral revival. As the years wear on, I could see “Last Christmas” usurping “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” or “Jingle Bell Rock” as one of the three biggest holiday songs of the year, and creating a sort of balance in the sound and thematic scope of the primary holiday trio.

Glenn Rowley: I’m always a proponent of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” getting a second or third (or, you know, thirty-eighth) wind during the month of December. Last year, it reached a new peak of No. 7 on the Hot 100 and this week it’s already sitting at No. 6 on the Holiday tally. Maybe the right sync or TikTok trend can push it even higher in Christmases to come.

Andrew Unterberger: Gonna go with “Linus and Lucy.” It’s maybe not the radio-friendliest of the Holiday perennials, with its lack of lyrics and jarring mid-song shifts in tempo and melody, but it’s beloved by every new generation since A Charlie Brown Christmas‘ 1965 debut, and its association with that classic holiday special gives it extra meme potential. Also, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s entire soundtrack rises higher on the Billboard 200 albums chart each year — it hit the top 10 for the first time last year — so that momentum might carry over to the Hot 100 before too long.

Christine Werthman: Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is currently No. 6, but it was in the top three around this time in 2019. I’d put my chips on that one to sneak its way up the chart in the future, especially if it gets featured in a holiday movie, a la the “All I Want for Christmas Is You” moment in Love Actually

5. Let’s say Adele, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Bad Bunny and Drake each released a brand-new solo Christmas song on Friday. Which one do you think would be the biggest front-runner for the Holiday 100 No. 1?

Katie Atkinson: I’m going Adele, 100%. Just like her bombastic vocals were a no-brainer for a James Bond theme song 10 years ago, her warm, rich delivery would be tailor-made for a Christmas classic. I’m thinking something more in the understated, bittersweet vein of Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” than the poppy Mariah route – though a jingly redo of “Rumour Has It” all about Santa Claus could be cute too.

Jason Lipshutz: Give the edge to Adele here — she’s not as prolific as Bad Bunny or Drake, is more of a reliable Hot 100 chart-topper than Beyoncé, and unlike Taylor Swift, has never released a Christmas song. An Adele Christmas single would be a special release from a chart superstar… who also happens to have the type of overwhelming vocal power that a holiday song typically requires. However it sounds, it would have a great shot at No. 1.

Glenn Rowley: Regardless of the song, there’s no stopping Adele the moment she decides to drop an original holiday tune (an eggnog-fueled follow-up to “I Drink Wine,” perhaps?).

Andrew Unterberger: It’s probably Adele — but don’t count out Bad Bunny’s ability to surprise, or Taylor Swift’s will to win.

Christine Werthman: Adele all the way. She has a timeless voice, she transcends generations, and she would likely make something that is contemporary enough for young listeners but classic enough for an older audience to throw into the rotation of holiday standards. As far as knocking out “All I Want for Christmas Is You” from the top spot, though, I’d still give Mariah 70/30 odds to win the No. 1.

Andrew Unterberger