The Battle (for the Battle) for Christmas Number One

09/12/2011 23:27 GMT | Updated 08/02/2012 10:12 GMT

Coyly asking for the receipt; arguing with the family; an overblown Eastenders special; Terry's Chocolate Oranges. They may not be in keeping with the true spirit of Christmas, yet they've all become a bonafide part of the Yuletide routine. But one such late 20th century tradition seems to be dying out here in the wintry wasteland of the 21st.

The race for the Christmas No 1, once a headline-generating, excitement-building cultural event, has fizzled out in recent years. On the surface, it would appear to be a direct result of there being no actual race - it's largely been a given that the X Factor winner's single would sail to the top of the charts. So, in short, no-one else has bothered. The usual Christmas Top 10 mix of slushy ballads, charity singles and novelty records has dissolved (though it could be argued that, in some of the X Factor releases, we've had all three in one), leaving it an everyday rundown of airplay standards trailing behind Cowell's newest victor.

But is it as cut-and-dried as that? Should artists, labels and fans just shrug their shoulders and resign themselves to the reign of the X Factor juggernaut? If we use the model of Christmas 2009, then it's still very much up for debate.

When Jon and Tracy Morter spearheaded a campaign to get Rage Against The Machine to the festive top spot ahead of Joe McElderry, the objective was to stick two fingers up at the X Factor's monopoly on the Christmas No1 . And while it achieved that with aplomb, it brought something else far greater - an actual race for the top, something that arguably hadn't been seen since 2001.

Through a nostalgic haze, it feels like the Spice Girls' consecutive three Christmas No 1s were a breezy, effortless dead cert at the height of Spicemania. But each time, they very much had a battle on their hands - 1998's Goodbye fought off stiff competition from South Park's Chef; 1996's 2 Become 1 was delayed for a week to avoid a clash with a charity single in aid of the Dunblane massacre; while the bookies - and even the midweeks - put 1997's Too Much at Number 2, behind the Chicken Shed Theatre Company and their tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales. By Sunday, not only had Too Much claimed the top spot, but Chicken Shed had slipped to 15 - one place behind Vanilla's No Way No Way. Grim.

This highlights that the element of surprise was a key factor in the Christmas chart, not just at the summit but throughout the Top 40. Huge sales translating into meagre positions; random re-entries; things you'd never find at any other time of year. No such luck these days - while the inclusion of downloads makes for a more accurate picture of consumers' purchases, there hasn't been a single year since 2006 where Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You hasn't revisited the Top 20. Who's still buying it? Do they think the previous year's MP3 has somehow expired?

In fairness, the charts overall don't feel as though they carry the weight they once did. With iTunes, the progress of a single can be monitored at any point, taking away any sense of occasion. And in a world without Top of the Pops, there's no platform for artists to celebrate their achievements, or to illustrate their success with a performance. Listening to Reggie Yates on Radio 1 indifferently reveal Rihanna as the UK's No 1 yet again doesn't quite invoke the same kind of excitement.

But Christmas carries so much expectation on so many levels, perhaps the race for the Number One spot is still that little bit more coveted than the other 51 weeks of the year? Maybe that sense of event is still present - it just needs the likes of the Morters to coax it out of us.

It's not about smothering the output of talent shows - sure, A Moment Like This or When You Believe were on a par with paper hat from a Christmas cracker in terms of both shelf life and quality, and perhaps weren't deserving of the accolade. But the likes of Alexandra Burke's Hallelujah or Matt Cardle's When We Collide were largely well-received, and might well have been contenders - if not certified champions - were they not gifted the backing of the X Factor.

Even when Popstars: The Rivals saw a newly-formed Girls Aloud take on One True Voice, there was still the element of competition. And that's what we want - an epic skirmish of Spiller vs Truesteppers chart lunacy that plays out in the run-up to that auspicious Sunday, except with added sleigh bells. Something that garners coverage and generates debate and brings a bit of life back to what's become a parched, predictable Top 40.

So, if any disgruntled music fans are planning to get behind a deliciously inappropriate rock anthem again this year, it'd be welcomed warmly by the rest of us. Maybe sticking it to the Syco machine isn't quite in the Christmas spirit, and it's safe to say any attempt would be a long shot indeed, but the excitement that it would generate would revive a dying festive ritual. And hey - if it means grainy Nirvana footage plays out just before the Queen's Speech, then that's just the Flake atop the mini Yule log.