When The Waitresses recorded “Christmas Wrapping” in New York on a scorching August day back in 1981, they had no idea that it would become an indelible part of Christmas pop music history.
Although The Waitresses were the brainchild of Chris Butler–who incorporated his love of various musical styles, including new wave, pop and jazz, into the band’s repertoire–it was the band’s first vocalist, Patty Donahue, who got them noticed. Donahue was a presence to be reckoned with. Her Bacall-like bravado mixed well with her rapid-style brand of talking/singing. Donahue was a take-no-prisoners front woman who had no problem speaking her mind or interjecting her own emotions onto the band’s records.
Although The Waitresses were primarily active in early 1980s, they remain affectionately timeless. This is largely due in part to the skillful fusion of Butler’s lyrics, some snazzy horns, tight percussion and Donahue’s raw energy, which manifested itself almost a decade and a half ahead of the riot grrl movement.
[ad#longpost]Despite limited commercial success, The Waitresses came along at just the right time. They were a solid pop band that pushed the envelope with tracks like “Pussy Strut,” “Thinking About Sex Again” and “They’re All Out of Liquor Let’s Find Another Party” while still keeping their fingers on the pulse of slickly produced pop a la “Square Pegs” and “I Know What Boys Like.” However, “Christmas Wrapping” remains their masterpiece.
The song is popular for so many reasons. First, it one of the best sounding Christmas pop records ever made, period. Second, it’s one of the few songs written in the Yuletide pop canon where the female singer sings unabashedly about her desire to get some. Thirdly, and this is important, the record does a great job of venting all the running around, shopping and frustration of the holiday season and turns it into something shimmering and warm.
The end result is that the hurried frenzy of the season has never sounded better. It begins with sleigh bells followed by a bassline and percussion that kickstarts a relentless tempo that launches Donahue’s proto-rapping delivery, which is supplemented by clever keyboard hooks and sax riffs.
Using “Bah Humbug’ as an opening line for the song was bloody brilliant. It sets the lay of the land lyrically and allows the melody to speed up as Donahue describes her crazed holiday season with a rapid-fire chronicle of her year of missed hookups with a cute guy she met in a ski shop. Her frustration is so obvious that when Donahue sings about only wanting “completions and connections left from last year” for Christmas you can’t help but feel for her.
As “Christmas Wrapping” progresses, little bits of the holiday season are referenced and lightly sprinkled amongst the lyrics to season the frustration and tinge the song with just the right dosage of melancholia.
Her plans for a low-key celebration change after she forgets the cranberries for “the world’s smallest turkey.” A simple trip to the grocer unexpectedly leads us to a bombast of pop exuberance with a burst of eagerness and anticipation as she spots the guy she’s been chasing all year.
This is where Donahue really gets going. She does a 180 on her emotions and manages to convey that warm giddiness of meeting a new love lyrically. Magically the cold winter dissipates and a warm fuzziness takes over. Christmas is saved and all is well.
“Christmas Wrapping” didn’t have a lot of chart success when ZE Records released it in 1981. However its theme of sitting out the Christmas rush never gets old. It is interesting because it was one of the earliest attempts to hybrid new wave with the up and coming style of rap music
Despite all of this, though, I think the best thing about it is that it never sounds dated or bothers you in the way those other Christmas singles do. There is also something quite hopeful underneath the veneer of frustration in the record that people still relate too.
Sadly, “Christmas Wrapping” marked the pinnacle for The Waitresses who disbanded completely in 1984. Donahue died of lung cancer in 1996.
To not find charm in “Christmas Wrapping” is to not be human. It remains great because it doesn’t try to pretend to be anything that it is not. It rises above other Christmas hit records because it encapsulates all of the misery and pain in the ass crap of the season while magically telling a story that leads to “a very happy ending.” After all, who doesn’t want a happy ending at Christmas?
“Christmas Wrapping” and “Fairytale of New York” are two of my ‘modern’ Christmas favs… and throw in Kate Bush’s “December Will Be Magic Again” while we’re at it…
btw, we just marked the 10th anniversary of Kirsty MacColl’s tragic death last Saturday…