Every December, "All I Want for Christmas" is as inescapable as pumpkin-spice scented candles. This week, the iconic song topped the Hot 100 chart for the first time in the 25 years since its release, making it the first Christmas song to land at number one since "The Chipmunk Song"'s reign in 1959.
And although it is undoubtedly Mariah Carey's season—she's reissued a deluxe version of her 1994 album Merry Christmas, rebooted her All I Want for Christmas tour, and been the subject of a mini-documentary about how the Christmas anthem came to be—not everyone is thrilled about the news. In a new interview with Variety, frequent Mariah Carey collaborator Walter Afanasieff, the co-writer of "All I Want for Christmas," says the song's victory, and his involvement with the song, is complicated.
"With the crazy, wonderful, miraculous thing that this is in my life for the last 25 years, it has come to a place where it's almost bittersweet for me because of the fact that I'm constantly, every single year at this time of the year having to defend myself, because a lot of people just don't believe that I'm a co-writer of the song," he said. The problem is that Afanasieff, who also worked with Carey on songs like "Hero" and "One Sweet Day," has a completely different account of how the song was written than Carey does.
Mariah Carey Is Christmas: The Story of "All I Want for Christmas," the Amazon Music mini-doc, shares Carey's version of how she came up with the song, which, as Variety points out, is similar to other accounts shared in interviews with Billboard and Cosmopolitan.
"What I did was, I said, 'Let me try and get in the Christmas spirit,'" she says in the doc. "Actually, I put on It's a Wonderful Life downstairs, you could hear it throughout the house. I went into this little small room and there was a little keyboard in there and I started playing."
Carey admits to not being a great piano player, but says finding the melody was a "happy accident": "That part is something I'll always remember, just the quietness of being there in that room and playing and writing and changing a Christmas song into a love song [...] and kind of making it all one thing."
Afanasieff remembers things a bit differently. "We wrote the melody together and all the chords and all the music that you hear," he said. "And then she went off and she wrote her lyric, which she does to every song that we've ever written." In his version of events, they sat at the piano together. "Mariah didn't play the piano, I did. So in playing these series of chords, she started to develop a melody for the verse[...]"
Later, according to Afanasieff, he took the track to San Francisco—while Carey stayed in New York—and arranged the rest of the track, without the lyrics, as we know it today.
"I produced and recorded and arranged and played every single instrumental on the track, on my own, knowing that I think she would like this or wouldn't like that. I then brought the [track] back to her in New York, and she obviously liked everything, and we started to record vocals."
Afanasieff says its been 20 years since the songwriters have spoken, and despite Carey's claim that she almost singlehandedly wrote "All I Want for Christmas," Afanaseiff doesn't seem to have any malice toward his former writing partner; he just wants some acknowledgment for his involvement in the historic song. "I just know that for 25 years in a row, she's never given me any credit."
The differences between Afanasieff and Carey's stories are dizzying. Both of them recall their versions vividly enough to raise an eyebrow of speculation. Could Carey, who according to both stories isn't a strong piano player, have actually constructed the melody on a Casio keyboard on her own?
The magic of "All I Want for Christmas" is how wholesome it is, and trying to unravel the threads of truth feels might just ruin everything we know and love about it. But Santa Claus is really the biggest lie of them all, so uh, happy holidays.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer.