Michael Jackson’s Lifelong Love of Christmas: An Inside Look at His Most Cherished Holiday Traditions
For global superstar Michael Jackson, Christmas was truly the most wonderful time of the year. From his early days performing yuletide classics with the Jackson 5 to his annual tradition of transforming his Neverland Ranch into a winter wonderland, Jackson harbored a lifelong love for the Christmas season rooted in nostalgia, generosity and childlike wonder.
In an exclusive interview with Ebony magazine shortly before his untimely 2009 death, Jackson opened up with rare candor about his most beloved holiday rituals – from trimming the tree with his children to donating gifts and funds to families in need. “Christmas brings out the child in me,” Jackson told Ebony. “It reminds us all to be gracious, generous and kind.”
The Jackson 5 Christmas Album and an Early Love of Holiday Music
Long before he bestowed pop music lovers with smash studio albums like “Thriller” and “Bad,” Michael Jackson kickstarted his career as the pint-sized frontman of the Jackson 5. In 1970, the group released their first and only Christmas album – “Jackson 5 Christmas Album” – featuring funky renditions of yuletide favorites like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
“I have such magical memories making that Christmas record with my brothers,” Jackson told the Chicago Tribune in 1997. “Singing songs about Santa and snowmen and the like. The glittering lights, shopping for presents – the holidays made everything more magical back then.”
Indeed, Jackson credited the beloved Christmas album with stoking his lifelong love of holiday tunes. In later years, he continued the tradition by recording several solo Christmas offerings – including the Grammy-nominated “One More Chance” in 2003. According to longtime confidante Frank Cascio, Jackson would blare crooner Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” every year while decorating Neverland Ranch, transporting himself back to those youthful days with the Jackson 5.
Transforming Neverland Ranch Into a Lavish Winter Wonderland
Nothing showcased Michael Jackson’s sheer childlike wonder and Christmas spirit quite like the annual transformation of his sprawling Neverland Ranch into a lavish winter wonderland. Each November through December, Jackson reportedly spent upwards of $100,000 turning his whimsical estate into a Santa’s village worthy of the North Pole.
Twinkling lights bedecked every tree and structure on the property. In the courtyard, a larger-than-life Santa statue stood watch over a skating rink filled with laughing children. Inside the main house, a two-story Christmas tree dazzled next to a holiday model train circling underneath. Stockings were hung for Jackson’s children on the fireplace. Cookie ingredients and milk were left out for Santa on Christmas Eve – just as Jackson did as a starry-eyed child back in Gary, Indiana.
Most spectacular of all, real snow – transported from nearby mountains – covered the amusement park region, allowing guests to sled, make snowmen and engage in epic snowball fights with the King of Pop himself. “I want to experience it all through their eyes,” Jackson told his biographer about Christmas with children at Neverland. “The magic, the hopes, the dreams of sweet things wrapping paper will bring.”
Family Time Trimming the Tree, Exchanging Gifts & Watching Holiday Films
Nothing represented domestic holiday bliss for Michael Jackson more than trimming the Christmas tree – a tradition he was rarely able to partake in as a constantly-touring child star. At Neverland each year, he delighted in stringing lights and hanging ornaments alongside his children: Prince, Paris and Blanket.
Older decorations made by Prince and Paris when they were younger always held places of honor. Some were even incorporated into Jackson’s sprawling holiday displays around Los Angeles. “I save all the homemade ornaments and crafts my kids make,” he told Ebony. “They get better every year!”
When it came time to open presents on Christmas morning, Jackson took on the role of Santa – donning a red cap and false beard to dole out beautifully-wrapped gifts next to the twinkling tree. “He made Christmas magical for all of us,” daughter Paris told Oprah Winfrey in 2010, tears sparkling in her eyes.
Afterward, the family would stream festive films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Jackson, in particular, counted the animated 1966 special as a yuletide favorite. “It takes me back to being a kid,” he said. According to his estate, Jackson even sought to purchase the rights to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” late in his career, hoping to create a special animated video for the melancholy “Christmas Tree” song.
Holiday Charity Work – From Toy Giveaways to Neverland Invitations
Above all else, Michael Jackson saw Christmas as a time of giving – not receiving. Though the holiday transformed him into an exuberant child once more, he also fully embraced the role of Santa Claus through extensive charity work benefitting vulnerable families and children.
Each holiday season, Jackson would host Christmas toy drives at Neverland Ranch – often stepping into the spotlight himself to hand out gifts. “The best way for me to spread Christmas cheer is singing carols, handing out presents and doing what I can to help others,” he told Ebony in 1992.
Additionally, Jackson directly paid holiday bills for impoverished households selected at random by charitable foundations. “Someone helped me out so much when I was struggling early in my career,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. “I cannot bear the thought of any child not experiencing joy on Christmas morning.”
Beyond handing out presents, Michael Jackson also extended coveted Christmas season invites to underprivileged children to visit his Neverland wonderland. Kids with serious illnesses especially captured a cherished spot on the merry guest list.
“They would just light up seeing all the rides and games – and playing in the snow,” Jackson recalled. “Seeing it transform through their eyes brought me indescribable joy. I wanted them to see themselves the way I saw them – as the embodiment of Christmas magic.”
Final Years & Bittersweet Holiday Reflections
In his gut-wrenchingly candid 2003 documentary “Living with Michael Jackson,” the eternally childlike singer revealed brief glimpses into the profound holiday loneliness plaguing his later years. Though the decades marched on, Jackson still clung to the same Christmas traditions from his starry-eyed youth: staying up late to catch a glimpse of Santa, leaving out cookies and milk.
“Christmas is all about kids,” he remarked wistfully to interviewer Martin Bashir, his lost childhood evident behind sad eyes. “It’s not the same for me anymore.”
Indeed, the mounting scandals, court cases and press attacks leading up to Jackson’s premature 2009 death further obscured his holiday sparkle. The man who had devoted so much time and money into staging lavish Christmases for families in need now struggled to muster his own holiday cheer.
Still, during his final interview with Ebony magazine in December of 2008, the eternally jolly Jackson mustered a smile when reminiscing about his favorite time of year.
Though the twinkling lights of Neverland no longer illuminated children’s’ eyes each December, new generations continued discovering Jackson’s abundant Christmas offerings: the Jackson 5 classic “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” his own timeless staple “Thriller” and even the melancholy holiday ballad “One More Chance” he penned just five years prior.
Indeed, as evidenced by the tearful worldwide vigils held each Christmas since his passing, Michael Jackson himself became a symbolic yuletide gift of song and dance gifted from Gary, Indiana all those decades ago – transforming lives through rhythm, harmony and joy.
“That’s what matters,” Jackson concluded poignantly in his final holiday interview. “Long after I’m gone, I hope my Christmas spirit can still inspire smiles in children everywhere. That would be the greatest gift of all.”