Yodelling hamster tries to knock St Cliff off pedestal as Christmas No 1

Once upon a time, the Christmas number one hit single was the province of crooners and swooners. A song in the fine tradition of "White Christmas", evoking sleigh bells and glistening tree tops, would top the charts.

Once upon a time, the Christmas number one hit single was the province of crooners and swooners. A song in the fine tradition of "White Christmas", evoking sleigh bells and glistening tree tops, would top the charts.

But on the eve of the new millennium, the contenders for the final number one of the 20th century hardly match the Bing Crosby classic.

This year, the most likely number one will be either Sir Cliff Richard's rendition of "The Lord's Prayer" set to the music of "Auld Lang Syne", or the dance mix of a yodelling hamster, taken from the eighth most visited Internet site.

If that doesn't appeal, how about the "Children's Promise" sung by everyone from the Spice Girls to Robin Williams, the Hollywood star, or "Mr Hankey, the Christmas Poo", by the children from the South Park television series?

The words of this charming little ditty are: "Mr Hankey, the Christmas Poo, He loves me and I love you, Therefore vicariously, he loves you."

A Radio 1 insider said: "It's true there are no big guns this year but then there are not many big bands around. You would have thought that for the last chart of the millennium everyone would have made more effort."

Sir Cliff, second favourite to be number one after Westlife, who have released a double A-side including a cover of Abba's "I Have A Dream", is top of the charts despite receiving very little airplay.

Both Radio 1 and 2 refused to include Sir Cliff's song, of which the kindest description was a "dirge", on their play lists, but the ebullient Christian bachelor's fans went out and bought the record anyway.

A spokesman for his record label, Chrysalis, said yesterday they were "praying" for the Christmas number one.

What has squeaked in with a good chance started as dancing hamsters, on a cult Internet site featuring a crowd of cartoon rodents dancing and yodelling to a tune from Disney's Robin Hood. Now The Cuban Boys, who met on the Internet and communicate largely via e-mail because two of them live in Preston and two in Eastbourne, have taken a sample of the sound and released a single, "Cognoscenti versus Intelligentsia".

They may sound like Pinky and Perky on speed but the band has found an unlikely champion in the DJ John Peel. He said: "This has to be, honestly, the most requested record I've played on the radio since "God Save the Queen" [by the Sex Pistols]."

Having repeatedly played it, he conceded it was "spectacularly irritating ... but also wonderful at the same time".

John McKie, the editor of Smash Hits, said the race would probably be won by Steps, Westlife or S Club 7, the biggest pop bands around , but it could go to an outsider. "There is something romantic about the British charts and the way the public can just decide to get behind a song and make it go all the way like Mr Blobby," he said.

"I don't think it will be South Park but I would be very happy to see The Cuban Boys at number one.

"As for Cliff, fair play to him. I don't like the song but ... the radio refused to play it and he still made it."

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