No holiday song is more delightfully cynical than this 1981 hit by short-lived new wave band The Waitresses. It’s more popular than ever, and it’s not hard to see why, writes Nick Levine.
The best Christmas songs feel like old friends who come to visit every year. It wouldn’t be December without hearing Wham!’s Last Christmas on the radio or Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree playing as you order a gingerbread latte. In the streaming era, some old festive favourites are now regulars in the charts each winter too: Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You finally topped the Billboard Hot 100 in December 2019, some 25 years after it was first released.
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There is no formula for making the perfect Christmas song, though it never hurts to include sleigh bells and other musical nods to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production style. The disgraced producer’s classic 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You has become an enduring festive bellwether: its most famous song, Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), has been covered by the likes of U2 and Michael Bublé, while its maximalist style has inspired seasonal staples from Wizzard’s 1973 stomper I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday to Kelly Clarkson’s 2013 chestnut Underneath the Tree. A general sense of bonhomie is also commonplace in holiday songs: Paul McCartney’s contribution to the oeuvre, 1980’s Wonderful Christmastime, hinges on a simple, winsome hook: “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.”
It’s for this reason that the deliciously cynical 1981 sleeper hit Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses feels like an outlier. The short-lived new wave band from Akron, Ohio, never attained household name status, but their slyly subversive festive gem has grown in popularity over the years. It’s the “anti-Christmas” holiday song that we can’t get enough of. “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas – but I think I’ll miss this one this year,” the band’s frontwoman Patty Donahue sings on the first chorus. Really, the only other Christmas standard with a similar whiff of misanthropy is The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s 1987 classic Fairytale of New York, which has acquired a new poignancy this year following the death of Pogues singer Shane MacGowan on 30 November.
A refreshing view of the season
But unlike Fairytale of New York, which has been somewhat tainted by the controversial use of a homophobic slur in its lyrics, Christmas Wrapping is a family-friendly antidote to too much festive cheer. Music writer Rhian Daly hails it to BBC Culture as “a rare holiday song that doesn’t venture into cheesy territory”, describing its sound as “cool and alternative but still festive thanks to its jingling intro and gleaming guitar riffs”. For Hugh McIntyre, a music journalist with Forbes, Christmas Wrapping “has a special place in the pantheon of holiday songs”, he tells BBC Culture because “it is campy and silly in a way we don’t usually get to hear in a track that stands the test of time”. He also points out that it provides a “different viewpoint” from most Christmas music – one that is “funny” and “leans into the negative in a way that is grounded and relatable”.
For much of its runtime, Christmas Wrapping approaches the holiday season with a shrug. “Bah, humbug!” Donahue sings at the start over a deceptive peppy beat, before quickly correcting herself: “No, that’s too strong – ’cause it is my favourite holiday.” By the end of the first verse, Donahue is telling us she just needs to catch her breath and wants “Christmas by myself this year”. It’s a sentiment that will resonate with anyone who is dreading spending Christmas Day with testing relatives.
We’re not necessarily walking through the snow and sitting by the fire like [the narrators] of some holiday songs, but we’ve all dreaded going to a party or forgotten something for the Christmas dinner – Hugh McIntyre
McIntyre believes Christmas Wrapping has become an unexpected festive favourite because it reflects the way many of us actually tackle the so-called “season of goodwill”. “We’re not necessarily walking through the snow and sitting by the fire like [the narrators] of some songs, but we’ve all dreaded going to a party or forgotten something for the Christmas dinner,” he says. In Christmas Wrapping’s final verse, Donaghue realises she has no cranberry sauce to slather on her supermarket turkey, so she heads to an “all-night grocery” where she bumps into “that guy I’ve been chasing all year”. He, too, was intending to spend Christmas by himself, but their chance encounter rekindles the thwarted romance that Donaghue sings about in the previous verses.
In Christmas Wrapping’s outro-cum-last chorus, Donaghue’s jaded view is replaced by genuine festive cheer when she trills: “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, couldn’t miss this one this year.” Daly hails this as “a Hollywood ending in a song” because of the way it “allows us to remain romantic about what the season might bring, no matter how downtrodden we feel”. This heartwarming plot twist almost certainly broadens the song’s appeal: like many Christmas standards, its popularity has been bolstered by dozens of cover versions. “Some younger people probably became aware of Christmas Wrapping when it was sung on the TV show Glee in 2011,” says McIntyre.
Others may have discovered The Waitresses’ festive hit when the Spice Girls recorded it as the B-side to their 1998 single Goodbye or when Kylie Minogue and Iggy Pop teamed up for a perky duet version in 2015. “With Christmas songs, covers don’t usually replace the originals but they do help remind the masses that a song exists and reiterate just how wonderful it is,” McIntyre notes.
Its reluctant creation
Christmas Wrapping is so wonderful that it has transcended its origins as a novelty hit by a cult new wave band who only released two albums. The song’s appealing sense of festive ennui is no affectation. It was written somewhat under duress by The Waitresses’ guitarist Chris Butler, who told The Guardian in 2020: “I was such a Scrooge. I hated Christmas!”
Butler, who had played in two notable groups from Akron, Ohio – Tin Huey and The Numbers Band – initially formed The Waitresses as a solo side project in 1978. That year, he wrote I Know What Boys Like, a sassy new wave track featuring vocals from Donahue that was catchy enough to bag him a deal with New York-based ZE Records. At this point, he assembled a full line-up for The Waitresses: himself and Donahue, plus saxophonist Mars Williams, drummer Billy Ficca, keyboardist Dan Klayman, bassist Dave Hofstra and backing singer Ariel Warner.
In 1980, after I Know What Boys Like had become a cult club hit, ZE Records asked The Waitresses to contribute an original song to a multi-artist Christmas album featuring various acts from their roster. As Butler also told The Guardian, he dismissed the idea as “festive nonsense”, especially from the label that was home to influential punk band Suicide and avant-garde singer-poet Lydia Lunch, and “hoped they would forget the idea, but they didn’t”.
It just captures the magic of Christmas in a very relatable way – Rhian Daly
But while Butler might have written Christmas Wrapping reluctantly, he definitely did not phone it in. Instead, he poured his own experience of seasonal stress while working as a freelance journalist into the song’s authentic anti-Christmas sentiment. “When people were relaxing, having a cup of holiday cheer, I was slaving away to write articles and make deadlines, because I was perpetually broke,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal.
In addition to giving the song a strong story arc and soaring chorus that sounds quintessentially festive despite its ambivalent lyrics – “But I think I’ll miss this one this year” – Butler shrewdly drew from rap music, which was bubbling up from the New York underground. Christmas Wrapping’s title is a three-way pun: on wrapping paper, the full circle “wraparound” nature of its narrative, and Donahue’s rapping-influenced vocal performance.
Donahue’s deliciously dry delivery heightens the song’s tongue-in-cheek quality, helping to make it a tart counterpoint to the cloying sincerity of some festive hits. Sadly, the singer died of lung cancer in 1996, two years before the Spice Girls brought the song to a new audience. Her bandmate Mars Williams – who plays Christmas Wrapping’s distinctive saxophone riff, another key ingredient in its festive recipe – passed away last month. Still, their performances live on in a song that has slowly but surely become a seasonal staple. Since 2017, The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping has returned to the UK charts for a week or two every December.
“I do think there’s a good chance Christmas Wrapping will either maintain its current level of popularity or perhaps even become more popular,” McIntyre says, pointing to its place on numerous pre-made streaming playlists. When time-pressed Spotify users search for “best Christmas songs” instead of building their own bespoke playlist, they’re likely to hit on one that places Christmas Wrapping alongside yuletide tunes by Wham!, Carey and Bublé.
On top of this, the song’s unique viewpoint – apathy melting into eleventh-hour revelry – will always strike a chord with anyone who struggles to feel festive at the ‘most wonderful time of the year’. “Although Christmas Wrapping is far superior, its appeal is kind of similar to the awful Netflix movies we watch every December,” says Daly. “It just captures the magic of Christmas in a very relatable way.” So, to paraphrase its comfortingly familiar chorus: Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, we couldn’t skip this one this year.
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