Famously, Mariah Carey does not believe in time.
She celebrates birthdays, of course. But they are “anniversaries,” dahling, and just how many of them there have been is between her and God. (“I’m 12,” she told my colleague Tim Teeman once when the subject of her age came up.)
She has perhaps become inextricable from the ceremony of years passing, having delivered one of the most memorable New Year’s Eve performances in recent memory—for reasons it is impolite to acknowledge—and then followed it up 365 days later with a triumphant redemption.
When there are milestones in her career, like her Christmas smash “All I Want For Christmas Is You” reaching No. 1 on the charts 25 years after its initial release, she’ll cheekily dismiss that math, saying she wrote the song “in the womb.”
There is an entire post on The Cut titled “A Brief History of Mariah Carey Refusing to Acknowledge Time,” which includes her participation in 2019’s viral “10 Year Challenge” meme. Rather than post photos of herself a decade apart, she offered two identical images of her taken that same day, captioned: “time is not something I acknowledge.”
But then there’s the occasion each year where she ever-so-briefly acknowledges time—when, and please read this in a teasing, slightly ecstatic, cooing scream, “It’s tiiiiiiime.” And, maybe even more important, when it’s “not yet” time, as in not a minute before the clock strikes midnight on Nov. 1.
That is when it’s permissible to, once again, give into the temptation to blast “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to the rafters, in your earphones, on every radio station, and through every drug store, grocery store, and mall on a joyful loop.
It is at this threshold point that Carey assumes her seasonal throne as the Queen of Christmas and, with exuberance, we can forge forth into the holidays, the music superstar’s repertoire of unparalleled holiday tracks and her erstwhile embrace of indulgent festiveness providing the backdrop to the celebration.
That precarious relationship with time does, however, present itself on a Thursday night in mid-November when, as true to every warning from the team involved in scheduling it, Carey is [redacted] minutes late for an interview to discuss her new Apple TV+ holiday special, Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues, which launches Dec. 3. (Just how late? When given the opportunity to interview Mariah Carey, to paraphrase the Elusive Chanteuse, time is not something one acknowledges. It’s called respect.)
It can not be properly explained or ever overstated, the surreal experience of spending [redacted] minutes staring at a blank Zoom screen only for Mariah Carey to suddenly appear, lounging in the platonic ideal of what you would imagine a Mariah Carey Christmas tableau to be, smiling cheerily and with a warm, husky gusto saying your name and asking how you are.
When we say “Mariah Carey Christmas tableau,” we’re talking a perfect frame of meticulously decorated tree—draped, naturally, with unmissable “MC” ornaments—from which pine garland sprouts, twinkling with gold lights and glittery baubles as it makes its way across a fireplace. In every corner there are towers of exquisitely wrapped presents. Perched atop one is a miniature doll of a cartoon version of Carey, decked out in a sexy Santa outfit.
“Wow, that is festive,” we say, somewhat shell-shocked by the sudden assault of carefully appointed Yuletide beaming at us. Carey, resplendent in a red velvet gown with her honey-and-caramel hair cascading in a way that appears perpetually windblown even while indoors, kicks her head back and laughs heartily before turning around to take it all in herself.
“I mean, it is festive,” she replies, seeming a little sheepish at the grandiosity of it all, like she’s making fun of herself. “I know. I have to stop myself from looking at it too much until after Thanksgiving.”
Ah, time, once again, is all relative. Exclusive: On Nov. 1, it is acceptable for the rest of us to frolic forth into merriment. Carey herself (like a sane person) prefers to let Thanksgiving pass before the festivities begin.
In spite of ourselves, we’re starting to buy into this whole idea of the meaninglessness of time. After all, we were allotted a paltry number of minutes with which to sit in Carey’s virtual audience. A mere blip in both of our days. A whistle note in the wind, if you will. How, then, to explain the rich conversation, in turns giggly and melancholy, born from such a fleeting moment? Then again, this is Mariah’s world. What is a moment, if not momentous?
Momentously, then, we talk through the blessing but also, in some ways, the burden of being so associated with the revelry of Christmas that Santa Claus himself might be wondering if there’s some All About Eve situation brewing. We discuss the painful roots of her childhood that are behind the insistence on such festiveness this time of year, but also the realization that, for all that jolliness, this can be a desperately lonely time. As I scan through my notes, it appears that we also discussed McDonald’s, alcohol, and my depressing love life—which, in hindsight, paints quite the picture of me and how I chose to use this time.
The major headlines: It wasn’t always this easy, or this fun, to be Mariah Carey during the holidays. Also, Mariah Carey would like you to date me for Christmas.
We start our conversation with the thing that is most meaningful to me: Her partnership with McDonald’s.
Few things are more sacred in this household than Mariah Carey and McNuggets, and now they are one. Following in the footsteps of past partnerships with artists Travis Scott and Saweetie, the two titans of American culture teamed up to launch the Mariah Menu—replete with a fascinating, if somewhat baffling ad campaign featuring Carey wearing a ball gown in the ocean surf, the golden arches rising behind her. (Apparently, it’s a reference to a meme. The more you know!)
Customers who make a minimum $1 purchase through the McDonald’s app will be gifted a different free item each day from the Mariah Menu. We thank Carey profusely for bestowing the ultimate Christmas gift: Explicit permission to eat McDonald’s every day in December. Our heart is full, we tell her.
“Well yes,” she says, practically winking: “Though I think we’re waiting until [December] 13th for that to begin...” Looking out for our figure by making sure we don’t indulge too soon, like the holiday queen she is.
In a rare instance in our life, it is not us, but Carey, who turns the conversation to drinking.
On the topic of branding, she’s always wanted to create a holiday beverage, but—confession time!—she’s never really liked eggnog. “I just drink it at the holidays so that I’m being traditional.” So, dipping her stiletto into the liquor space, she is launching the brand “Black Irish,” a line of Irish cream liqueurs. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek name,” she says, rolling her eyes at herself. “Sort of a nod to my being Black and Irish.”
“I hate to be sitting here pitching an alcohol,” she says, apologizing. “But it’s really good.” Listen, there couldn’t be a more captive audience to pitch that to, we assure her. Sláinte!
With Big Macs and booze set to make the next weeks merry and bright—and greasy and tipsy—the obvious matter at hand begs to be discussed. This is Mariah Carey in a red gown perched on a cozy chaise in front of a fireplace, presents, and tree. Shall we talk about Christmas?
For Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues, Carey will perform classic hits, including a new rendition of her fan-favorite cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and the debut performance of her new single “Fall in Love at Christmas” with Khalid and Kirk Franklin. Apple Music’s Zane Lowe also interviews Carey alongside her 10-year-old twins, Morocco and Monroe, about what the holiday means to their family.
It’s in this segment that Carey delivers the seemingly innocuous—and certainly indisputable—truth: “I can’t not celebrate Christmas with the world,” she says.
Well, duh. At this point, when the annual ascendance of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” to number one again isn’t so much a question of “if” but “how fast,” a holiday season without Carey presiding as mistress of ceremonies would be like a sky with no sun, a circle with no center, or a slice of pizza with no cheese. It would defy logic. It would be incomplete.
It must be so gratifying to play such an intimate role in experiences that are so meaningful to so many people this time of year. It also, however, must feel like an immense responsibility.
“I think I feel the most responsibility to my kids,” she says. “And then there’s my little-girl self…”
At this time last year, Carey had just published her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, written with Michaela Angela Davis. The paperback version was released just last month. One of the biggest changes from the hardcover edition is evident as soon as you see the book on the shelf.
“My little-girl photo is the cover,” Carey says, referencing the image of Carey as a child on a beach, her hair blowing in the wind, that has replaced the glam modern portrait that had previously been the cover image. “It is what I always wanted, but the corporate people were like, no. No offense to anybody, but they were like, no, we need the grown-up shot and da-da-da… I’m like, but the whole point was to emancipate my little-girl self.”
In The Meaning of Mariah Carey, Carey recounts the hopeful ceremony each year—perhaps delusion—of her mother adding an extra leaf to the dining table and spending the day cooking, caroling, and decorating in hopes that this year, any year, would be the year that she, her mother, her sister, and her brother could, for one day, have a peaceful and loving dinner under one roof.
Her siblings and her mother rarely spoke the rest of the year. By the time they arrived on Christmas Day, she writes, they were “stuffed with hurt and anger, starving for attention.” Eventually, they would all explode. “I would sit there in the corner of the chaos, crying and wishing: wishing they would stop screaming, wishing my mother could stop them from screaming and cursing. Wishing I could be somewhere safe and merry—somewhere that felt like Christmas.”
Later in that chapter, she hints at the seed that sprouted this candy-cane jungle of holiday celebration. “My wishing was more powerful than their pain,” she writes. “I wished with exuberance. I set about creating my own little magical, merry world of Christmas. I focused on all the things my mother struggled to create; all I needed was a shower of glitter and a full choir to back me up.”
As she explains to me now, that context is important to understanding her relationship to Christmas, and why, even before she had kids to spoil, she seized the opportunity to go a little (OK, a lot) over the top.
“I really didn’t have Christmases like this,” she says. “I had no idea it could even look like this. You know what I mean? There was tons of dysfunction and sadness, but I always always hoped for this amazing Christmas. So yeah, I guess there’s a responsibility that I feel, but it’s more almost to myself to make sure everything is festive.”
The Lambs, or her Lambily, as she refers to the fans who have stuck with her throughout the ups and downs of her career, have been an integral part of repairing her relationship to the holidays and healing those wounds of the past.
They’re the ones that proved that, when she released Merry Christmas in 1994, it wasn’t a misguided idea to drop a holiday album while her career was mid-rocket launch. They’ve embraced this spirit of hers with such gusto that, in recent years, a handful of holiday-themed concerts grew into a residency at New York’s Beacon Theatre, then a full-blown tour, and now, Christmas specials. In fact, her last big show before COVID-19 shut down the world was a sold-out holiday show at Madison Square Garden. And of course, they’re the ones who energized the push for “All I Want For Christmas Is You” to become Carey’s record 19th number one single.
It means something different to her now that the Lambily has read The Meaning of Mariah Carey and knows her story, whether it’s the struggles she faced as a biracial girl—and then entertainer—with racism and colorism or, in terms of Christmas, the trauma that had been attached to it for so long.
“I was a little bit tentative about it at first when we were writing the book because I didn’t want people to have a sad experience,” she says. “I know a lot of people get depressed during the holidays. I didn’t want to give that vibe, but I was being truthful about my childhood, my life. This little girl—it always sounds like a made up thing—but I always just wanted the perfect Christmas and believed that would happen. I believed every year, and got foiled every year.”
She wrote “All I Want For Christmas Is You” for her younger self. As she explains in The Meaning of Mariah Carey, “I wanted to write a song that would make me happy and make me feel like a loved, carefree young girl at Christmas.”
Listening to it every year is now part of her holiday tradition as well, she tells me. “So when people, fans, lambs, talk to me about it and say, ‘We’re listening to this in July!’ Or, like, ‘This is our tradition! This is our family tradition.’ It does make me really proud. I love it. I love the holidays.” She makes a grand gesture to the display behind her and tosses her head back dramatically, “In case you couldn’t tell.”
It’s important to her to appease those who are ecstatic about the season, of course. But it’s become just as vital for her to validate those who have the opposite experience over the holidays because, for so long, that was her, too.
Just as much as this is an exciting time for so many, it’s devastating for others. For those who miss a loved one. Who are lonely. Who are entering the season without family, without connection, without celebration, without love. For them, the excessiveness of the holiday only amplifies the pain. The season is something to brace for, not count down to.
Her new holiday single is called “Fall in Love at Christmas.” From her mouth to God’s ears, we tell her. After a sad breakup, the holidays have become bittersweet. How are we, or is any person, supposed to reconcile all of that at a time when we’re supposed to be as “festive” as she, the Queen of Christmas herself, projects?
But she’s always understood the polarity of the holiday experience. One of her favorite tracks from Merry Christmas, the album that featured “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” is titled “Miss You Most (at Christmastime).” Billy Eichner actually sang a lovely version of it last year on The Late Late Show With James Corden.
It’s a gorgeous song about past love and heartbreak, feeling regret, rejection, and aching wistfulness at what is supposed to be, as another classic song goes, the most wonderful time of the year.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘This is the saddest song I’ve ever heard in my life,’” Carey says. “But there’s a duality to the thing. Everything isn’t just jumping up and down and festive.”
Even a song like “Fall in Love at Christmas,” with Khalid and Kirk Franklin, begins with a soft, hesitant lilt, like it’s going to be a slow ballad. But then Franklin, as Carey puts it, “basically takes us to church.” “It’s a love song,” she says. “‘Every Christmas I’ll be there.’ That could mean someone that’s passed away. That could mean someone that’s just always going to be in your heart.”
She calls the single “an exuberant moment,” but one that is quite different from “All I Want For Christmas Is You”—not that she’s trying to compete with that hit. If you listen to her extensive holiday music catalog, it’s eclectic. It’s modern and it’s classic. It’s romantic and it’s sad. It’s joyful and it’s reverent.
“I love all the different styles of holiday music,” she says. “It allows me to stretch. When you’re not trying to go for a modern-day moment—I’m not gonna suddenly be like Queen Of Trap Music; I’m not trying to do that—it gives you creative freedom to do whatever you want and especially, on an emotional level, touch different places and heal those places within yourself.”
Healing, sure. We’ll try, we tell her. And maybe, just maybe, fall in love at Christmas, too.
“You’re finding love this Christmas,” she says. “Let’s put Christmas magic on it. Let’s make a pact about it.”
Well, you heard her. The Queen of Christmas compels you.
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