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The ‘All I Want for Christmas’ index: Tracking holiday cheer with Google and Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey performs at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles in October. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

When does the holiday season actually begin? Many, perhaps most of us, would peg the start of the season somewhere around Thanksgiving. But a completely nonrepresentative social media poll suggests a fair amount of dissent: Some cheerful souls say the holidays start right after Halloween. More than a few Grinches, on the other hand, would push the start of the season back past Dec. 1.

Given the disagreement on the particulars, as a public service I’ve assembled what I believe to be the first truly objective measure of when the holiday season starts and ends. Similar to my groundbreaking delineation of decorative gourd season several years back, it relies on Google Trends data to measure how people behave, rather than what they say they believe.

I present you the “All I Want for Christmas Index of Holiday Cheer.”

Yes, we can use interest in Mariah Carey’s iconic holiday standard as a proxy for feelings of what we might call holiday cheer. The 1994 single tops Billboard’s list of the most popular holiday songs of all time, bolstered in part by the song’s appearance in the 2003 holiday romance “Love Actually.” The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones called it “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon.” For many listeners, the song is quite literally the sound of contemporary Christmas.

That’s why it makes for such a good barometer of holiday cheer. The thick blue line in the chart above shows weekly average Google search interest in “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (henceforth abbreviated as AIWFCIY), for the second half of the year from 2006 through 2017. Individual years' lines are in light grey.

An important caveat with these figures, as with all Google search data, is that they don’t necessarily tell us why people are searching for a given topic. Some of these searches are from people who want to listen to, download or buy the song. Others may just be interested in learning more about who sings it or who wrote it.

What they do unequivocally show, however, is interest. And there, the chart yields some surprises.

Notice, for instance, that the thick blue average line starts showing a slight but very noticeable upward trend starting around mid-September. This suggests that some Americans start getting into the holiday spirit right around the start of fall — perhaps those same insufferable people who always boast about having their Christmas shopping done by the end of September.

There’s another noticeable break near the end of October, as the line veers sharply upward. It’s Halloween, stores are starting to stock their holiday items, and some people clearly give in to the temptation and go full Mariah before Nov. 1.

Mid-November marks the final escalation in AIWFCIY search activity. Incidentally, that’s the same time Spotify data show the United States typically crosses the “serious” Christmas music threshold, when at least 2 percent of all streams on the service are of Christmas music. And the No. 1 Christmas track in the United States? You know what it is.

From mid-November through Christmas week, AIWFCIY search activity shows a steep upward trajectory. Its slope flattens out a touch around mid-December — perhaps a reflection of the holiday shopping blues? But Americans rally, and searches reach their peak right around Christmas before falling back to earth in the run-up to the new year.

So how’s 2018 shaping up relative to prior years? Behold:

AIWFCIY searches are currently trending well ahead of prior years. Interest in the song is currently higher than at any point in the past decade or so for which Google has numbers. Is this because people need more holiday cheer this year, or are they simply feeling more festive? Again, the numbers don’t tell us exactly why they’re searching, but it is clear that this holiday season people need more Mariah in their lives than usual.

To return to our initial question, the aggregate numbers suggest there’s a strong case to be made that the holiday season really starts in the run-up to Halloween, when AIWFCIY searches start to tick upward in earnest. To all the Scrooges who say that’s too soon, I have just one thing to say: