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'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' goes to No. 1 — after 65 years

Brenda Lee attends the CMA Awards at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 8. Her holiday hit "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has reached No. 1 on the <em>Billboard</em> Hot 100, 65 years after its debut.
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Brenda Lee attends the CMA Awards at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 8. Her holiday hit "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, 65 years after its debut.

This week's No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 is one you've probably heard before — over and over again. For decades. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"— sung by Brenda Lee, and first released 65 years ago, during the Eisenhower administration — has gone to No. 1 on the singles chart, for the first time ever.

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was written by Johnny Marks — who, as part of a long, great traditionof American Christmas songwriters, was himself actually Jewish. (Marks also wrote "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas.") Lee recorded the song when she was just 13 years old, not long after she signed a contract with Decca Records.

Since its 1958 debut, this Yuletide classic has become a staple on holiday playlists. It's a sunny, up-tempo, broadly secular song, perfect for providing cheerful ambience. But there are a few more specific reasons it's been able to reach the top spot this year.

Back in 2018, Billboard reconfigured its chart calculation formula, giving more weight to streams (and especially to streams made on subscription or paid-tier services). That meant that catalog recordings — whether released a year earlier or decades ago — would have more of a chance to chart alongside new material, since listeners are likely to stream old favorites over and over again.

That effect has been especially notable during the holiday season, when artists have generally refrained from dropping big new releases — and when more listeners turn to a shared body of communally well-loved songs.

Those chart changes had an impact on the holiday music landscape right away. In December 2018, Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" went to No. 6 on the Hot 100 — the highest position it had ever reached on the singles chart. (When it debuted in 1994, Columbia Records didn't bother to release the song as a commercial single in any physical format, so due to the chart rules of the time, it wasn't eligible.)

Since then, "All I Want for Christmas Is You" has become the perennial star atop the Hot 100 each holiday season. It went to No. 1 for the first time in 2019 and continued that streak for the next three years. (Just behind it: one "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," peaking annually at No. 2 between 2019 and 2022. Before this past decade, "Rockin' " had peaked at No. 14 on the Hot 100 — in 1960.)

This year, to mark the 65th anniversary of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Lee, who turns 79 next week, has made an extra-big push to help it climb all the way up the chart — past Mariah Carey. She recorded the song's first official video, which features cameo appearances by Tanya Tucker and Trisha Yearwood and has become a hit on TikTok, garnering 8 million views and counting.

Trailing Lee on the Hot 100 this week is Carey, followed by Jack Harlow's "Lovin On Me" and two other deep-catalog holiday classics: Bobby Helms' recording of "Jingle Bell Rock" and Wham!'s "Last Christmas." But with the top spot to herself, Brenda Lee has finally received her holiday wish.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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