When you think about Christmas “standards”—the songs on heavy rotation all December, the ones you’re likely to hear on the radio, the staples of Christmas albums old and new—the same several songs most likely come to mind. Many of them are probably oldies-but-goodies, originally popularized by old-time crooners like Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and Nat King Cole. (They all have nothing on the oldest Christmas carol of all time, though.)
But no list of Christmas standards would be complete without Mariah Carey’s breakout modern classic, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The song debuted in 1994, and suddenly, when we heard the phrase “all I want for Christmas,” we no longer thought about our two front teeth. Twenty-five years after its release, the upbeat, 1960s rock and roll–inspired number is just as beloved (if not more beloved!) than any of those classic carols. It’s seen covers by other huge stars, from Michael Bublé to Idina Menzel to Fifth Harmony; appeared in films that became classics in their own right; inspired viral videos. And its popularity just keeps growing. In December 2019, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts for the first time ever. Carey could never have imagined the song’s success—and, indeed, she wasn’t even sure recording it was a good idea. (Time makes fools of us all!)
What gave her pause wasn’t necessarily the song itself, which she reportedly wrote in 15 minutes. (It would later undergo plenty of tweaks, though, as she and her co-writer Walter Afanasieff fine-tuned it over the next couple weeks.) She wasn’t sure that releasing a Christmas album, period, was the best move. As she told Entertainment Weekly in December 2019, “It was so early in my career. I didn’t feel, from a strategic point of view, that it was time to do something like that…Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Carey wasn’t brand new to the music scene in 1994; Merry Christmas was her fourth album in as many years. But it wasn’t just the timing that gave her pause. In the early 1990s, “Christmas music and Christmas albums by artists weren’t the big deal that they are today,” Afanasieff said in a Billboard interview—and certainly not for up-and-coming artists. Of course, the song’s massive popularity dispelled all of these notions. For years to come, those light jingling notes of the song’s intro will surely continue to get people in a festive mood. See how it stacks up on our list of the 20 best Christmas songs of all time, ranked.