For the purposes of this entry, a Christmas single is one which explicitly references Christmas, or is a version of a Christmas carol, and reached the Top 50 of the UK charts.
The first Christmas single to reach Number 1 in the UK Singles charts was Christmas Alphabet by Dickie Valentine in 1955. This was followed two years later by Harry Belafonte’s version of Mary’s Boy Child. In the years that followed some Christmas singles achieved positions in the lower reaches of the charts, but generally the Christmas charts were dominated by huge selling artists like The Beatles and Elvis Presley or by novelty records such as Lily the Pink by Scaffold in 1968 and Ernie by Benny Hill in 1971.
In 1972 it was a novelty record that held the Christmas Number 1 spot. Jimmy Osmond’s Long Haired Lover from Liverpool was no doubt boosted by Osmonds fans as well as the parents of Osmonds fans who purchased the record in their droves. However, further down the chart the first stirrings of the golden age of the Christmas single could be seen. John and Yoko with the Plastic Ono Band and the Harlem Community Choir released Happy Xmas (War is Over) and achieved his highest Christmas chart position since 1967 when Hello Goodbye made Number 1. The simple lyrics chimed with record buyers who wanted a Christmas record with a more meaningful message and the touch of acidity to the song made it the Christmas song that more serious record buyers could admit to liking. In the April of 1972 the Pipes and Drums and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards went to Number 1 with Amazing Grace, a track that also made Number 1 in Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Their Christmas record, The Little Drummer Boy, reached Number 13. The final Christmas entry of 1972 was Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town by the Jackson 5, a song that has been eclipsed in long term popularity by their version of I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus.
1973 was a year of industrial action, three day weeks and power cuts. If ever the British public needed cheering up it was then. Unbeknown to each other, three of the biggest acts of the time had all decided to release a Christmas record that year. The stage was set for the first big Christmas chart battle of the 70s. The also-ran that year was Elton John whose Step into Christmas stalled at Number 25. In this case, the UK record buying public demonstrated a degree of musical taste not always in evidence during December, as the other two contenders that year were far better songs. Wizzard, led by the multi-talented Roy Wood reached Number 4 with the perennial favourite I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday, losing out in an all Midlands battle to the top UK act of 1973, Slade. The Black country glam rockers had already had two Number 1 singles that year and both entered the charts at Number 1. A few years earlier Noddy Holder had written a prog rock tune called Rocking Chair which was shelved because it didn't fit in with their heavier sound. Holder's co-writer Jim Lea decided to do a Christmas single after his mother kept asking him too! He remembered the tune of Rocking Chair and decided that it might work as the tune. He took a shower and when he got out 20 minutes later he had the basis of their biggest hit. The single was recorded in America in a July heatwave but it had that indefinable Christmas magic. Merry Xmas Everybody was a sure-fire Number 1 before its release with pre-orders of 500,000 copies and first week sales of 400,000! In fact, it stayed at Number 1 for five weeks and was still in the Top 40 on February 3 1974! At Number 14 that year was an interesting antidote to the glam Christmas records of the big acts. Steeleye Span, a British folk group, released an acapella version of a Christmas carol in Latin! Gaudete is a sixteenth century carol whose title means Rejoice and celebrates the birth of Jesus. It was one of only two songs sung entirely in Latin to reach the Top 50, the other being Pie Jesu.
Christmas 1974 saw five festive songs in the charts on Christmas Day. They could not be a more diverse quintet. The lowest charting of the five was Hey Mister Christmas from the New Faces winners Showaddywaddy. It was a decent enough attempt to produce a Christmas Rock n Roll record, but although the lyrics were good, the production needed more power to really break through. Five places above them at Number 18 was early 70s chart topper Gilbert O’Sullivan. His single called The Christmas Song is a superb record that really stands the test of time with the simple refrain wishing for peace instead of a snowy Christmas. Sadly the public didn’t recognise its beauty and a track that should have fought for the top spot barely scraped into the Top 20. The Goodies were a comedy trio who had brief success as a musical group. Their biggest hit came in March 1975 with Funky Gibbon, but in December 1974 they released the double A side The Inbetweenies / Father Christmas Do Not Touch Me. The latter, despite having incredibly suggestive and occasionally crude lyrics, got a lot of airplay during the lead up to Christmas and the record reached Number 13. Another novelty group, The Wombles, reached Number 2 a couple of weeks before Christmas before settling at Number 5 for the Christmas chart itself. However, unlike The Goodies, their Christmas record was written by Mike Batt, whose ear for a tune and skill with a lyric gave young fans a bona fide Christmas classic to listen to. Wombling Merry Christmas married some quite beautiful sentiments with a rocking tune that made it the perfect singalong. However, the saxaphone solo that could just have been an uninspired copy of Wizzard's the previous year was the musical centrepiece with a power and musicality that lifted it out of the realms of novelty records to become a Christmas pop classic. Both acts acknowledged the similarity in 2002 when they teamed up for I Wish it could be a Wombling Merry Christmas Everyday where they alternated lines of the songs. Let's just say, it's an acquired taste! The Number 1 at Christmas 1974 came from Mud with their Elvis pastiche Lonely this Christmas. Singer Les Gray delivered the track with an unmistakable Elvis style drawl and even put in a spoken section that copied Are You Lonesome Tonight. It was a smash hit and followed February 1974’s Tiger Feet to Number 1, this time for four weeks.
In 1975 Greg Lake, of the 70s group Emerson, Lake and Palmer released one of the all-time great Christmas singles, I Believe in Father Christmas. Despite the title, however, it was a very different seasonal smash because lyrically it is shot through with disappointment and disillusionment. These lyrics are accompanied by the tune Troika written by Prokofiev which sets these dark sentiments to deceptively seasonal music. In almost any other year it would have been a certain Number 1, but it was held at Number 2 by the musical juggernaut of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Just two places below at Number 4 was a Christmas record by the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana. Her winning entry that year was the Number 1 All Kinds of Everything. It’s Gonna be a Cold Cold Christmas was a seasonal favourite in the 1970s that gave Dana her second biggest hit, but failed to achieve the long term success of the really famous tracks. At Number 22 was the second version of a Latin Christmas carol to chart in the UK. Mike Oldfield's instrumental version of In Dulce Jubilo was an instrumental that was released as a double A Side with Oldfield's own composition On Horseback which was thought to be a contender for Christmas Number 1. However, when it was released and in Christmas compilations from then on it was In Dulce Jubilo that was played almost exclusively with the other side being largely ignored. Four novelty tracks made the Top 50 with Chris Hill’s Renta Santa, an unaccountably popular track settling at Number 10, followed by such diverse artists as Judge Dread with Christmas in Dreadland, The Goodies with their desperate attempt at another Christmas song, Make a daft noise for Christmas and Freddie Starr with a cover of White Christmas! The Carpenters scraped into the Top 40 with their cover of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. However it was Merry Christmas Darling which became regarded as the Carpenters' ultimate Christmas classic when rediscovered by Christmas compilations in later years. That much loved track would finally chart in 1990, reaching Number 25, 18 years after its original release.
1976 saw Johnny Mathis take the Number 1 slot out from under the noses of Showaddywaddy who thought that Under the Moon of Love would be the Christmas chart topper. When a Child is Born was hugely popular with both long term Mathis fans and those who knew nothing about him and its positive message has made it a Christmas staple ever since. Below Johnny Mathis, Chris Hill was once again at Number 10, this time with Bionic Santa and Jethro Tull went back to Pagan times with their folk rock classic Ring Out Solstice Bells that reached Number 28. It is to date the only hit single about the 21st December!
1977 was the year when punk arrived and Christmas singles were non-existent apart from the appearance of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas at Number 5 as a tribute to the recently deceased singer. It is the biggest selling single ever worldwide, but, as the bulk of its copies were sold before sales started to be calculated in 1952, it doesn't even make the Top 100 best selling singles of all time in the UK. The Christmas Number 1 of that year was the massive hit by Wings, Mull of Kintyre, which sold over two million copies. This made it the highest selling UK single ever at the time, beating She Loves You by The Beatles. It was in fact a double A side with the track Girls School which was hardly ever played during Wings 9 week run at Number 1.
The biggest selling Christmas record of the 1970s ruled the chart at the end of 1978. Mary’s Boy Child had been a hit for Harry Belafonte just over twenty years earlier, but it was brought right up to date by Boney M. With the addition of the refrain Oh My Lord written by Frank Farian and Fred Jay and a disco beat it became a monster hit selling 1.9 million copies that year. In another disappointing year for Christmas singles two other tracks showed that writing a good Christmas single is not guaranteed whoever you are. Christmas in Smurfland by Father Abraham and the Smurfs was aimed solely at younger children and reached Number 19. In comparison to Wombling Merry Christmas it showed a complete lack of respect for the critical faculties of its audience. The Eagles lacklustre Please Come Home for Christmas limped into the charts stopping at Number 30 and proved that even the best acts can mess up a Christmas single.
Paul McCartney’s upbeat and infectious Wonderful Christmastime was the standout festive track of 1979 where the doom-laden but brilliant Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd topped the Christmas chart. Below him Elvis Presley had his only Christmas hit of the 1970s with the re-released It Won’t seem like Christmas (Without you). Its chart position of 25 reflected the fact that it was far removed from the classic performances of the artist who put Christmas albums on the map. The lowest festive entry was from Kurtis Blow with Christmas Rappin’ which settled at Number 36.
Despite the rather uninspired end to the decade, the 1970s was when the Christmas record really arrived and gave music lovers some classic tracks that have continued to delight as they take people back to memories of Christmases past.