Why ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ is still popular 30 years later

Mariah Carey wearing a red dress on stage smiling with her arms outstretched.
Mariah Carey performs onstage during her “All I Want For Christmas Is You” tour at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for MC

Some people begin playing Christmas music the moment the clock strikes 12 on Dec. 1 (or on Nov. 1 if they’re really spirited). Usually included on that playlist? Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

It’s been nearly 30 years since the elusive chanteuse released her Christmas hit. Since then, it’s become a holiday staple, topping the Billboard charts each holiday season and resulting with fans dubbing Carey “The Queen of Christmas.”

Headshot of Psyche Loui (left) and Murray Forman (right).
Northeastern professors Psyche Loui and Murray Forman a professor of media and screen studies. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But what’s made this tune particularly synonymous with this time of year? A mix of things, including pure old nostalgia, says Psyche Loui, an associate professor of music and psychology at Northeastern University.

“There are many reasons why songs stick,” Loui said. “There are certain melodic properties, pitches … or rhythmic properties … that make music particularly sticky. There’s also more psychological reasons for why some melodies are more memorable. Maybe they remind us of previous happy experiences.”

From the melodic standpoint, a combination of Carey’s “playful” vocals and the nostalgic quality of the music have helped this tune stand the test of time, according to Northeastern music and communications study professor Murray Forman.

“It opens with Mariah at her diva-esque best,” he said. “She hits notes that other people can’t. She’s got such a fluid kind of vocal that stands out right at the beginning. But then it becomes like a 1960s girl group hit (with piano and that girl group vocalization). The very aesthetic of the song is structured on the one hand showing this is Mariah at her peak and then we go to something that’s super familiar, recognizable and catchy as hell that a lot of people in the 1990s would be familiar with.”

This is partially why “All I Want for Christmas is You” (and holiday music as a whole) sticks with us. The music we listen to as adolescents tends to stick with us more than music from other times in our life thanks to something Loui calls a “reminiscence bump.”

“There seems to be this time in your adolescence where it’s an opening of a sensitive window for memorable experiences,” she added. “If you’re in your 70s and you’re thinking about music that you’ve heard anytime in your life and trying to listen to songs that are particularly memorable or emotional to you, chances are you’ll pick songs from your adolescence.”


Mariah Carey: Unwrapping the secret to Mariah Carey’s smash hit, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ with Northeastern music experts Psyche Loui and Murray Forman #MariahCarey #AllIWantForChristmas #ItsTime #AllIWantForChristmasIsYou #HolidayMusic

♬ original sound – NGN

Then there’s the cascading reminiscence bump where children are more likely to remember and enjoy songs their parents played for them growing up. This makes a song like “All I Want for Christmas” liable to stick around for a few generations.

“Music from childhood is kind of a warm and fuzzy blanket,” Loui said. “It’s a bit of this positive autobiographical memory.”

Further benefiting the song is its use in pop culture. Those who might’ve been a bit too young to remember the song when it first became popular might’ve been exposed to it when it was featured in the 2003 holiday hit “Love Actually.”

The song has also taken on a life of its own on the internet. Each year, people share memes about the song and its popularity. Carey herself is in on the joke and posted a clip to her YouTube channel of her “defrosting” on Nov. 1, meaning Christmas (and her song) is upon us. This, plus a movie and book based on the song, along with covers, remixes, new videos and  performances of it, have helped it create a life of its own.

“I think that’s part of the secret of how something endures,” Forman said. “You get this cross-generational appeal. (It’s incorporated) into each new generation, integrated into their traditions, which then becomes part of their nostalgia.” 

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at e.kayata@northeastern.edu. Follow her on X/Twitter @erin_kayata.