The Personal—and Controversial—History Behind Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’

mariah carey pointing out toward the audience while singing in front of christmas decorations
The History of ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’Getty Images
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Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has been one of music’s most recognizable singles—holiday or otherwise—going on three decades now.

Carey’s 1994 hit is considered the defining modern Christmas classic, with Billboard ranking it No. 1 on its list of the Greatest of All Time Holiday 100 Songs—ahead of legendary vocalists like Bing Crosby, Brenda Lee, and Nat King Cole. Thanks to streaming services and the song’s ubiquitous presence in pop culture, it has received billions of plays in its lifetime.

But while “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has become an essential part of the winter season—and earned the 53-year-old Carey the unofficial title of “Queen of Christmas”—its history is more complicated than you might think.

Listen to “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on Spotify or Apple Music

Carey loved Christmas, but her family would “ruin it”

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is a cheery and boisterous ode to Christmas, not to mention a yuletide crush. It’s also a sharp contrast to Carey’s melancholic experiences around the holidays while growing up.

Mariah was raised on New York’s Long Island and was part of a complicated family dynamic. Her parents—Alfred Roy Carey, a Venezuelan aeronautical engineer, and Patricia Carey, a voice coach and opera singer—divorced when young Mariah was 3 years old. She grew up primarily with her mother. Mariah has detailed their complicated relationship, suggesting in her 2020 memoir that Patricia resented her because of her musical ability. The singer also no longer speaks to her brother, Morgan, nor her sister, Alison.

Although Carey looked forward to Christmas every year, she said in 2019 that her “dysfunctional family” and financial struggles in childhood often overshadowed her excitement. “I always wanted to have a really good time at Christmas, and they would ruin it, so I vowed in my own life I would make sure every Christmas was great,” she told Cosmopolitan UK.

One silver lining was that Carey began writing poems and songs to process her feelings—a practice that helped her quickly become a music megastar.

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The singer didn’t want to do a Christmas album

mariah carey holding trophies she received at a music award show
Mariah Carey holds two trophies from the American Music Awards in January 1993.Getty Images

By 1994, Carey was a bona fide hitmaker with eight No. 1 singles to her credit. That included the songs “Vision of Love,” “Emotions,” and “Dreamlover.” So when her record label suggested she compose a holiday album, 24-year-old Carey was hesitant because she felt Christmas music was reserved for artists later in their careers—after their relevance had tailed off.

“I was like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know.’ It seemed a little premature, like I was jumping the gun,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2020. “The success of [the Merry Christmas album] was definitely a surprise. I mean, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ was the first Christmas song I ever wrote.”

The pop star first told Billboard in 2017 that she wrote the song “basically as a kid on my little Casio keyboard.” In the 2019 Amazon documentary Mariah Carey Is Christmas: The Story of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” the singer gave a similar account. “Actually, I put on It’s a Wonderful Life downstairs, you could hear it throughout the house, and I went into this small room, and there was a little keyboard in there, and I started playing,” she explained.

The song quickly became popular but not an immediate chart-topper when it was released as a single in October 1994. In fact, Merry Christmas was the second-best-selling new holiday album of 1994. The top was Miracles—The Holiday Album by famed saxophonist Kenny G. But Carey’s multiplatinum album more than made up for it over time, selling the equivalent of 8 million copies by December 2020. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is now a diamond-certified single, reaching 12 million downloads and streaming equivalents in December 2022.

The song’s origin is disputed

walter afanasieff smiling for a photo at a viewing party
Walter Afanasieff is credited as a co-writer of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and has rebuffed Mariah Carey’s story of the song’s origin.Getty Images

Carey is credited as a co-writer and co-producer of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” with Walter Afanasieff. However, their explanations behind the song’s creation are wildly different.

Afanasieff calls Carey’s story “kind of a tall tale.” According to the longtime songwriter, he and Carey—who had previously collaborated for her albums Emotions (1991) and Music Box (1993)—constructed the song together in the summer of 1994 at a home she was renting with then-husband Tommy Mottola. “I started playing a boogie-woogie, kind of a rock. Mariah chimed in and started singing ‘I don’t want a lot for Christmas,’” he said. “So on and on, and it was like a game of ping-pong. I’d hit the ball for her, she hits it back to me.” Ultimately, Afanasieff credits Carey with the lyrics and melodies and says he managed “all of the music and the chords.”

Afanasieff’s insistence has drawn the ire of some of Carey’s most devoted fans. The composer told Variety in 2019 he and his wife, comedian Katie Cazorla, have even received death threats for speaking out about his perceived snub from the singer. Although Afanasieff says he would work with Carey again in a heartbeat, he maintains that her comments have damaged his reputation. “Mariah has been very wonderful, positive, and a force of nature. She’s the one that made the song a hit, and she’s awesome,” he said. “But she definitely does not share credit where credit is due.”

The song is also the subject of a new lawsuit

In addition to Afanasieff’s claims, the songwriting behind “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the subject of a new lawsuit. On November 1, songwriter Vince Vance—real name Andy Stone—filed a complaint in Los Angeles federal court alleging Carey’s megahit infringed the copyrights to his song of the same name from 1989. According to Reuters, Vance and his co-writer Troy Powers are seeking at least $20 million in damages.

According to the filing, Vance claims Carey’s song features a “unique linguistic structure” similar to his own tune, which he performed with his group the Valiants. “Moreover, the combination of the specific chord progression in the melody paired with the verbatim hook was a greater than 50 percent clone of Vance’s original work, in both lyric choice and chord expressions,” the complaint says, according to Billboard. Vance and his lawyers even cite Carey and Afanasieff’s disagreement over the song’s creation, calling her origin story “incredulous.”

The 1989 “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was nowhere near as popular but did climb as high as No. 31 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and, according to Vance, received “extensive airplay” the holiday season before Carey released her version.

Vance filed a similar lawsuit against Carey that he dropped in November 2022. But this time, he and Powers are represented by Gerard P. Fox, the attorney involved in a case accusing Taylor Swift of stealing lyrics for her 2014 pop hit “Shake It Off.” According to Billboard, that case went through more than five years of litigation before ending in an undisclosed settlement in December 2022.

Although Carey has said she “hated” parts of the song, she fully embraces it now

mariah carey smiling next to a plaque showcasing her christmas record
Mariah Carey receives a special plaque commemorating the 12-times platinum status of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” in 2022.Getty Images

Whoever wrote and composed “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—and to what extent—Carey admits the final product isn’t perfect. “Trust me, there are so many parts I’m like, ‘Ugh, I hate that right there. Why did they make me keep that?’” Carey told Access Hollywood in 2013. “Because it was before I had full control over everything on the record, and somebody would be like, ‘No, just leave that note. Really, it’s good.’”

However, the singer can’t deny how important her song has become culturally and financially. According to Celebrity Net Worth, the tune had generated at least $80 million in royalties by December 2022 and could bring in an estimated $60 million if its rights ever sold.

Carey, who hasn’t had a non-Christmas No. 1 hit since 2008, has very much embraced her image as a holiday tentpole. In 2022, she even attempted to trademark her “Queen of Christmas” title for use in fragrances, makeup, clothing, and jewelry—though her request was ultimately denied.

Just last month, Carey announced her Merry Christmas One and All! tour, featuring 13 shows across major cities in the United States and Canada.

Today, the song is an important part of Carey’s Christmases with her son, Moroccan, and her daughter, Monroe. “It’s my anti-Grinch medicine,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2020.

Ultimately, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has an enduring legacy

It’s not hyperbole to say “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was a historic achievement for Carey. In December 2019, 25 years after its release, the track became only the second Christmas song ever to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100, joining “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).”

And in the age of streaming, the song is easier to find than ever. On Christmas Eve in 2020, it broke the single-day record on Spotify with more than 17.2 million streams. The music video on Carey’s official YouTube channel has been viewed more than 760 million times as of November 8, 2023.

Even other artists love the song. In 2016, former late night talk show host James Corden featured Carey and a host of other singers—Lady Gaga, Elton John, Gwen Stefani, and Adele, to name a few—in a “Carpool Karaoke” segment that immediately went viral.

And while all of this has been important to prolonging Carey’s career, the singer is simply proud to create a song that has become a holiday tradition for so many. “Music was always my saving grace,” Carey said in 2013. “And so, music at Christmas, there’s nothing better.”

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