Behind the History and the Meaning of the song “Last Christmas” by Wham!

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The British-born pop duo Wham! wrote one of the most recognizable Christmas tunes around.

For those who ride around listening to Christmas songs on the radio whenever in the car, the synthy single has likely come on a time or two in the past few weeks.

The group, which was formed in 1981, was comprised of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. Thanks to songs like “Last Christmas,” the duo went on to become one of the most successful pop bands of the 20th century, selling more than 30 million albums in just a four-year span, from 1982 to 1986 (before Michael would go solo).

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Other big songs from the duo include “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Everything She Wants.” But we’re not here to talk about regular ol’ pop hits. We’re here to talk Christmas. More accurately, we’re here to talk about “Last Christmas.”

The Song’s History and Meaning

Originally released in December 1984, the song was written and produced by George Michael. After its release, “Last Christmas” spent five consecutive weeks at No. 2 in the U.K. Singles Chart, elbowed out of the top spot by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Fun fact: Michael also performed on that song. So, it would seem, he was the King of Christmas in 1984.)

“Last Christmas” finally hit No. 1 on the U.K. Singles Chart nearly 40 years later on New Year’s Day 2021. Prior to that, the song held the record for the highest-selling single that never hit No. 1. In 2021, it hit No. 1 with 9.2 million streams and 1,555 downloads.

The song, which is about love and loss and includes upbeat music with sorrowful lyrics, was written by Michael when he and Ridgeley were visiting his parents. Michael wrote the song in his childhood bedroom and played an early version of it for Ridgeley soon after, which the bandmate called “a moment of wonder.” When the song was recorded later in 1984, Michael played every instrument on the track.

Plagiarism Accusations

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music, on behalf of the songwriters of “Can’t Smile Without You,” which was made into a hit by Barry Manilow, filed a plagiarism lawsuit, claiming that “Last Christmas” stole the melody from “Can’t Smile Without You.” But the case was dismissed by the court after a musicologist presented the judge with 60 songs from the past 100 years that all had similar chord sequences and melodies.

Cover Versions

The song has been covered innumerable times, but some especially notable occasions include renditions by the cast of Glee in 2009, which was later released on iTunes as a charity single.

Pop star Ariana Grande also recorded a version of “Last Christmas” and that soulful offering was the lead single from her 2013 album, Christmas Kisses.

Canadian country star Carly Rae Jepsen released her version in 2015, which she later performed in Rockefeller Center for the NBC Christmas television special.

Taylor Swift covered the song for her 2007 EP, The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection.

And the Backstreet Boys released a cover of the track in 2022, part of their holiday album, A Very Backstreet Christmas.

Final Thoughts

Remorse is a strong feeling. And this song is all about that. Coupled with the hope of a better future, and more love received, Michael sings:

Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special

The song then goes on to tell the story of two lovers meeting, eyeing each other from across the room. The singer and his lover entranced. But is this right? Is this perfect?

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In truth, it is not perfect. And what makes this so resonate around the holiday season, too, is that perhaps this is the feeling we’ve each had with the past 12 months. We tried to connect with the year, tried to love it, and wished it loved us, but it didn’t work out. Now, this coming year, to save ourselves from tears, maybe the next 12 months ahead will be more special.

Maybe.

Photo by Steve Rapport/Getty Images

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