If you ask anyone to name the most influential, popular Christmas album of all time, there is very little competition. Without fail, when I pose this question, I get the same answer: Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas. Some of my lesser holiday-inclined friends even cite this album as the only good thing about the season. While I might not be that much of a fanatic — or unenthused about the holidays — an investigation into the staying power of Mariah’s contribution to the Christmas music canon seemed fitting on its twenty-fifth anniversary.
When it comes to the success of Merry Christmas, the first thing Mariah Carey did right was release a holiday album when she was still at the peak of her fame. When she released this now-classic album came in the early ‘90s, it was only her fourth album ever. It wasn’t an afterthought coming late in a lagging career, it wasn’t a filler release, and it wasn’t a rushed or half-assed affair. Carey spent more than six months in the studio recording Merry Christmas, not even announcing its release until the October before it would come out.
After it was released, in November 1994, the album spawned an international, chart-topping single in “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” just like her other albums; it sold millions of copies, just like her other albums; it mixed uptempo hits with slower, sad ballads, just like her other albums. The reason Merry Christmas is such an important, resonant album twenty-five years later is because Carey didn’t treat it like a Christmas album — she treated it like a Mariah Carey album.
The second thing Carey did right was make Christmas her own. Yes, there are carols, covers, and traditional Christmas songs on this project, but there are also three original songs from Carey, effectively adding her own songwriting style to the Christmas music canon, and making the holiday her own through joyous, gospel-inflected covers. For a mainstream (read: white) audience in the ‘90s, being exposed to these songs in a classic gospel interpretation all through the vessel of a pop star was something of an enigma. But for the religious channels, getting a major pop star onboard with the message of Christ? A huge victory. They pushed and plugged the album and songs like crazy, helping contribute to its eventual, massive success.
That’s how a six-year-old homeschooler who wasn’t really allowed to listen to pop music — my parents considered it highly suggestive and sexualized — fell in love with Mariah Carey. Since these songs were spreading a Christian message, my parents played the tape in the car all winter long, and I learned to fall in love with Carey’s impressive register, amazing vocal runs, and heartfelt writing. I’m guessing this record was something of a gateway drug for plenty of Carey’s younger fans, who might not have been mature enough for some of her other early work, but connected to her during Christmas and remained loyal for life.
The last thing Carey did to make Merry Christmas a hit record was kept it short. It’s just nine songs long, and aside from the three she wrote, and one other popular cover (“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”) the other five are all very well-known Christmas standards. There’s nothing super obscure or off the wall — even if the production was unique to Carey’s style — which makes it an easy sell for mass appeal to every age group and demographic. While some critics at the time were skeptical that Mariah could cross over from her success in pop and R&B into the role of general entertainer, she proved them wrong by making choices that guaranteed this record would be appealing to mass audiences, all without sacrificing any of her own aesthetic. In fact, part of why the sound of this record is so true to her style is because Carey co-produced every single track.
Though she’s been through her ups and downs as a performer since, Carey’s resilience as a star is due, in part, to everyone revisiting this record every year during the holidays and remembering just how great she is. And so much of that is due to the record’s most massive single, a Carey original, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Recently, Mariah has realized the impact of this record, releasing a follow-up holiday record in 2010, a children’s book version of that hit song in 2015 (which sold 750,000 copies), and even announcing a film based on the track back in 2017.
And while that project has yet to come to light, even the realization that there’s an appetite for other interpretations of the song in different mediums further proves the impact of this album. Twenty-five years after its release, it’s still the most celebrated record that fans turn to in order to enjoy ringing in the Christmas season. And it probably will be twenty-five years from now, too, standing as a timeless and resilient monument to the force that is Mariah Carey.