Unwrapping A Holiday Classic, The True Story Of Christmas Wrapping
Is this Chrissie Hynde? Does she ever take a breath? Why do they call it Christmas Wrapping, they never mention that in the song? Is she saying Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, I think I want mittens this year?
The answers are; no it’s The Waitresses’ lead singer Patty Donahue, yes, because songwriter Chris Butler let the record label name it, and it’s “I think I’ll miss this one this year”.
But how did a throwaway song on an alternative Christmas album become a classic, so much so, that it’s been covered by artists as diverse as The Spice Girls, The Donnas and the cast of Glee? The true story’s so improbable it makes the song even more endearing.
Avant-garde musician Chris Butler (the guy in the bottom left corner of the above picture) grew up in Akron, Ohio. He attended Kent State University in the early 1970s and was on campus, in the crowd, when National Guardsmen fired on student protesters, killing four and wounding nine. He would come up through the Ohio musical ranks with Chrissie Hynde and Devo. He almost became famous with bands The Numbers and Tin Huey, but they both disbanded by the late 1970s.
By 1981, Butler had moved to New York on the strength of a regional hit song, I Know What Boys Like, which caught the attention of upstart new wave/alternative record label ZE Records. Blondie had gone from New York punk clubs to mainstream success with the disco record Heart of Glass and the rap pioneer song Rapture. New Wave music had replaced punk as the likely way for more artistic groups to break through. Butler knew his final shot at success was in front of him when his bosses came to him in August 1981 and said.
“Write a Christmas song. We’ll release it in 3 months.”
Years later, after his contribution became popular, he remarked.
“A Christmas album? On a hipster label? With a bunch of junkies on it? Eurotrash? Come on. Never happen…..OK, they were not all junkies and Eurotrash. But they were extreme individuals.”
The artists on ZE Records included Material with Nona Hendrix (who was infamous for performing nude), Was Not Was (many years before Walk With A Dinosaur), Suicide (known for songs so dark and depressing they were banned from many venues in the late 1970s), and Butler’s struggling new band, The Waitresses. ZE Records eventual LP, A Christmas Record, is so “out there” that it went out of print several times and the only way The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping could be found was through their own Greatest Hits. This made Christmas Wrapping’s climb to the top of people’s Holiday playlists even more improbable
Butler, singer Patty Donahue and the rest of the Waitresses culled guitar riffs, sax solos, piano parts, and melodies involving bells and drums from unrecorded songs, made Christmas Wrapping in less than two days, then went back out on the road in the Fall of 1981 trying to make I Know What Boys Like the tune that made them famous. But when Butler called his girlfriend from a Rochester, New York tour stop in late November her news shocked him.
“Chris, you’re all over the radio! Your song made it!”
Butler swelled with pride and said.
“Great, I knew “Boys” would do it.”
Then the girlfriend responded.
“No, the Christmas one.”
Five minutes and twenty two seconds about a girl living in the big city, wanting nothing to do with Christmas because she’s alone, puts the world’s smallest turkey in the oven but forgets the cranberries and runs to the store where she finds that guy she’s been chasing all year and they both end up spending the Holiday alone, together and wa la – happy ending. It sounds like a Lifetime Network movie my wife watches. But instead, it’s the most relatable Christmas song ever written.
After the initial success of Christmas Wrapping, The Waitresses got the attention of former Saturday Night Live writers then producers of the 1982 television show, Square Pegs, writing and performing the theme song. I Know What Boys Like hit MTV in 1982 becoming popular enough to be put on many “Best of The 1980s” compilations. But the group broke up in 1984. Butler and Donahue found success as studio musicians and singers but times got lean until the mid 1990s. That’s when The Spice Girls covered Christmas Wrapping and the royalties started kicking in for Butler.
The real star of Christmas Wrapping was and still is, Donahue. Her “devil may care but I sure as hell don’t” vocals are so perfect, they’ve been impossible to mimic. None of the covers have captured her emotional detachment that allows for the listener to attach themselves to the tune. She died of lung cancer at the age of 40 in 1996, never knowing the vast cultural impact of Christmas Wrapping.
It’s my favorite Christmas song. The real life, gritty lyrics about being too busy for the Holiday came from an intellectual honest place. Butler is a self-described “Scrooge” who just did what his boss wanted but created a world truer than Paul McCartney’s “we’re all having a wonderful Christmas time.” If early 1980s New Wave music and ZE Records’ intentions were about irony, then Christmas Wrapping is their finest achievement.
I’ll take my hot chocolate, socks and underwear presents, and post-Holiday debt just fine as long as Christmas Wrapping is playing.
(an edited version of this piece originally ran on Raisedontheradio.com on December 5, 2013.