By Nora Onanian, Web Services Coordinator
From the gentle twinkling bells that introduce the song to the exuberant saxophone and hilarious anecdotal lyrics, nothing gets me in the holiday spirit like “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses. It is five minutes and 20 seconds of pure fun. Plus, for a new wave band that didn’t have much of a name before the song’s release, it's quite an unexpected hit.
2021 marks 40 years since the Waitresses’ holiday classic was released, and what better way to celebrate than by taking a deep dive into its backstory?
HOW THE WAITRESSES GOT THEIR START
In 1978, Chris Butler was demoing songs with his band Tin Huey when he realized it was time for something new. He had started to write more pop-influenced songs, and one in particular — “I Know What Boys Like” — had not landed well with his bandmates. Ready for change, he struck up a conversation with Pat Donahue at a bar in Akron, Ohio one day. Donahue, a college student who was waitressing at the time, helped workshop the track into something Butler thought had potential. He took the single to New York City and was able to negotiate a record deal with Island Records.
Signed to a label, Butler’s side project had officially turned into something. He convinced Donahue to move out to New York and they scrambled to recruit bandmates. To complete their lineup, they snagged Billy Ficca for drums, experimental saxophonist Mars Williams, keyboard player Dan Klayman, and bassist Tracy Wormworth. They decided to call the band the Waitresses.
At Butler’s songwriting lead, the Waitresses began to create music centered around a female protagonist. In an interview with NME, Butler said “I noticed there were two or three stereotypes of women in music,” and that he wanted to fill what he felt was a missing gap: representation of “normal working woman” or “the female Bruce Springsteen” as he put it.
TASKED WITH CREATING A CHRISTMAS SONG
Mid-summer of 1981, ZE Records, a subsidiary of Island Records, tasked the group and eight or so other signees to write a song for their compilation album A Christmas Record. In an interview with the Guardian last year, Butler explained his upset at the request due to his disdain for Christmas, even describing himself as “a scrooge.” Growing up, the holiday was surrounded by a lot of arguments and he and his sibling hadn’t really gotten gifts. In 1981 specifically, Butler was working as a freelance journalist to get by and could hardly afford to take the holiday off. “I hated Christmas. I always had to work when everyone was having an eggnog. So I poured my sourness into this song,” he said.
He spent just about a day writing the lyrics, finishing them on the way to Electric Lady Studios for recording. After a quick process of getting overdubs and mixing, the song was finished in all of three days. Butler named it “Christmas Wrapping” — a three-way pun he said, toying at holiday gift paper, the rap-like style of the fast-paced narrative lyrics and the way the song tied up neatly with a bow at the end.
The band quickly forgot about the song and got back to focusing on marketing gigs around their fairly successful debut hit “I Know What Boys Like.” While on tour that Winter, Butler’s girlfriend told him she had heard his song getting played all over the radio. He was ecstatic that their long-pushed debut single was making an even bigger break, but she corrected him, explaining that it was The Waitresses’ Christmas Song that was making waves.
The unexpected hit was played across the nation, going on to become the staple holiday classic that it is today.
THE ENTHRALLING STORY TOLD THROUGH THE LYRICS OF “CHRISTMAS WRAPPING”
The lyrics of “Christmas Wrapping” take on the persona of a single woman who wants nothing more than to skip the chaos that typically comes with Christmas and settle for a relaxing night at home. As she reflects on being let down by failed Halloween plans earlier in the year and turning down recent invites to gatherings, it is clear she isn’t upset about spending the holiday alone.
But in the exposition, she hints that there is a guy she met at a ski shop that she regrets not having the time to go out and connect with. Donahue sings, “the perfect gift for me would be completions and connections left from last year.”
She sarcastically thanks the store for providing her “with the world’s smallest turkey” before exclaiming “oh damn! Guess what I forgot?” and heading back out. In a surprising twist chalked up to Christmas’ magic, the guy she had wanted to connect with is in line at the grocery store with her, having forgotten cranberries, too. After the tale is brought to a “very happy ending,” a long and lively outro is set off. “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, couldn’t miss this one this year,” Donahue repeats, eventually trailing off.
BREAKING DOWN THE DYNAMIC SOUND
Equally as compelling as the song’s storytelling lyrics is the instrumentation of “Christmas Wrapping.” Beginning with a light twinkling sound and keyboard, a loud guitar riff comes in, introducing an onslaught of other instruments.
Even against bright trumpets and saxophone and energetic drumming from Billy Ficca, the bass doesn’t fall to the background. Tracy Wormworths’ jazz-influenced bass line gives the song a next-level groove and Butler himself credits it for much of the song’s appeal. The layered recording technique of the saxophone and trumpet create the effect of a powerful collection of horns, garnishing some moments of the song and echoing the repetitive outro at others. The dynamic instrumentation creates a captivating backing for the song, the perfect complement to Donahue’s speak-singing.
THE IMPACT AND LEGACY OF THE WAITRESSES’ HOLIDAY CLASSIC
The Waitresses broke up in 1984 with two albums under their belt, but “Christmas Wrapping” will ensure their legacy is carried long and far. Their Christmas classic has gone on to be covered by numerous artists, from the Spice Girls to Kylie and Iggy Pop, and consistently brightens the holiday season with its relatable and playful style of instrumentation and storytelling.