“Christmas Wrapping” was a 1982 radio hit by Ohio band The Waitresses which put a cat amongst the pigeons as far as holiday standards are concerned. Every year at this time, we hear the cozy crooning of Sinatra and Crosby. Anyone sick of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”? Thankfully, there are a few songs that look at the season through different eyes, and “Christmas Wrapping” is one of them, offering a blessedly less treacly take.
Seriously, how many festive hits start with the words “Bah Humbug”? The late, great Patty Donahue, who with Chris Butler helped lead The Waitresses – at least retracts this slightly in the very first line, calling her words ‘too strong’ as Christmas is her ‘favorite holiday.’ This sets the tone for a story focusing on the various misses and mishaps people go through in a year.
Specifically, “Christmas Wrapping” centers around Donahue’s character struggling to connect with a guy she keeps meeting up with, only for fate to intervene every time. Through spring, summer and all the way to Halloween, she and her love interest keep having to cancel on each other or fail to follow through on their various meet-cutes. As John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
For these reasons, “Christmas Wrapping” is still hugely relatable. Instead of sugar-coating the season, The Waitresses present a positive, if world-weary, spin on what it means to appreciate Christmas.
Butler, who wrote the track in the summer of 1981 incorporating various unused song snippets, calls it “ironically sappy.” He was strong-armed into writing the song for a compilation published by ZE Records, an event to which he refers as the “irony of ironies.” “I am the most unbelievable Scrooge,” Butler admitted in an interview with SongFacts. The song was inspired by the rising trend in rap music at the time, and as such, Donahue chatters through the lyrics. It was a stark contrast to other songs that flooded the holiday airwaves at the time, and thankfully, it’s endured.
Butler is spot-on with his song’s self-analysis. It is certainly “ironically sappy.” The clear message behind “Christmas Wrapping” is that life isn’t always going to be as full of joyful laughter as Frank and Bing would have you believe. If anything, it shows that you can still enjoy the holidays, even if you’re not the most festive person on 34th Street. Donahue’s character may lament missed chances, but she’s happy to spend a peaceful Christmas on her own, knowing that it’s her reward for a mixed bag of a year.
Where the sappiness comes in, of course, is that Donahue receives more rewards than just “the world’s smallest turkey.” She walks into her love interest once again at the all-night grocery, who just so happens to be spending Christmas alone, too – a coincidence that leads the vocal character to claim her “happy ending.”
“Christmas Wrapping” remains one of The Waitresses’ most enduring hits, which still blows Butler’s mind. However, he’s less Scrooge-like about it these days. “I am absolutely gobsmacked every year,” the lyricist confirms. “I get such warm fuzzies from people saying, ‘It’s not Christmas until I hear (‘Christmas Wrapping’).”
CHRISTMAS BONUS! The Guitar Behind the Song
Editor’s Note: Santa delivered us an early gift when we were able to hook up with Chris Butler, guitarist for The Waitresses and writer of “Christmas Wrapping,” by way of our friend and guitar guru Randolph Hudson.
Back in 1980, Randolph bought a Vox “Robin’s egg blue” Teardrop guitar from a music store store on New York’s Long Island. As Randy explains, “I briefly taught there, alongside Jeff Allegue (Musical Director for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Taylor Dayne). I moved shortly after to the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. I had a loft that I shared with Mars Williams, the sax/reed player in the Waitresses and The Psychedelic Furs. I had met Chris Butler in 1979 when his previous band, Tin Huey, had moved from Akron Ohio to NYC. Chris visited our loft during the rehearsals for recording sessions at Electric Lady. Chris mentioned that his Strat was giving him a lot of trouble in the studio, tuning stability, intonation, etc. I showed him my Vox Teardrop, and invited him to borrow it. If memory serves, it was a couple of days later that he told me it would difficult to part with it, and wanted to buy it. I dug the guitar, but did not have that “special bond” as I had with other instruments, and I sold it to him for what I had paid for it. I will not disclose the price, but it was deal!”
That was a the beginning of an odyssey that took the guitar all over the world, before Chris was able to bring it home. It’s a really cool story, best left to Chris to tell himself here, courtesy of NPR.
Chris Butler is a founding member of The Waitresses and writer of “Christmas Wrapping.” He’s also a songwriter, founder of Future Fossil music, Guinness Book of World Records holder for the longest pop song (“The Devil Glitch”) and current creator/compiler of “The Infinite Glitch” (“a joke taken too far”).
Randolph A. Hudson III is a composer and electric guitarist who’s co-written, recorded and performed with members of Gong, The Waitresses, The Fugs, Shox Lumania, Psychedelic Furs, Soft Machine and many more.
Image: PR photo of The Waitresses