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Forty years ago, indie label ZE Records released the holiday compilation A Christmas Record, the very first alternative music Christmas album, featuring esoteric offerings by NYC no/new wave artists like Suicide, Cristina, and Material with Nona Hendryx. “All those warm and fuzzy people for the holiday season,” jokes Chris Butler of the Waitresses. But one track on that album, the Waitresses’ own sassy “Christmas Wrapping,” broke through to the mainstream.
Butler, a self-described “Scrooge in recovery,” admits to Yahoo Entertainment that he was practically forced to write the song by ZE Records co-founder Michael Zilkha, and he never expected it to become a modern-day classic that has been covered by everyone from the Spice Girls and Kylie Minogue to the casts of Wicked and Glee. “Christmas Wrapping’s” staying power is especially surprising considering that its backstory isn’t all that jolly and doesn’t exactly have a neatly tied-with-a-bow happy ending.
“It was the summer of ’81, and we had been on the road pretty much constantly flogging [the Waitresses’ debut single] ‘I Know What Boys Like,’ which was kind of bubbling under. I swear there's blood and sweat on every one of those sales for that record. That was our focus,” Butler recalls of that fateful phone call from Zilkha. “I thought, ‘Man, I need this like a hole in the head.’ I had hoped sincerely that he would forget about this Christmas idea. But at the end of August ‘81, he said, ‘I booked you into Electric Lady Studios.’”
While Butler says the holiday assignment “was not a top priority” for the Waitresses, “We were a pretty pro band, so we didn't want to come up with a throwaway.” Butler therefore grudgingly came up with the basic song idea and then fleshed out an arrangement with the band over the course of two weeks, and then "knocked this thing out in two and a half days, maybe three days. … I very much want to credit the other musicians, especially [bassist] Tracy Wormworth, who took a little phrase that I had on bass and turned it into a masterpiece. I think it kind of makes the song, that bass part. And kudos to [saxophonist] Mars [Williams] for pulling in our friend Dave Buck to play trumpet, so you have this big, fat Salvation Army kind of brass section. All the musicians did a really great job and were wonderful to work with, fun and fast. It was a very good recording experience. But we fulfilled our obligation and went back on the road — and kind of forgot about it.”
Once the A Christmas Record compilation was released, Butler realized that the Waitresses’ breakout single would be “Christmas Wrapping” — not “I Know What Boys Like,” as he had hoped. “Literally we were in Rochester, N.Y., at the end of November, beginning of December, and I called home to my girlfriend just to check in. And she said, ‘Man, you're all over the radio!’” he recalls. “And my thinking was, wow, finally all this hard work to promote 'I Know What Boys Like' had clicked. But she said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. It's your Christmas song.’ And I was very taken aback. We did not even remember how to play it; we learned how to play it that night at soundcheck.”
Butler recalls how difficult it was for frontwoman Patty Donahue to recreate the tune’s fast-paced rapping in concert. “I always had to apologize for not putting any parts in there where she could catch a breath,” he chuckles. “We would also split up some of the end where it's a dialogue: One of our band members would do the male role to break up the relentless pace of words. We had to build in breathing space. … And so then it stayed pretty much in our repertoire, all the way until the band exploded.”
For years, Butler had mixed feelings about the Waitresses’ holiday single and unintentional signature song — and not just because it shifted focus from “other things I’d done that I think are better quality work, or I cared more about.” He confesses, “Christmas has never been jolly or merry for me because of my family history. …We had a real combative Italian and Hungarian family and it was a pretty toxic family background. And Christmas, when you're supposed to be chummy and warm and fuzzy, it was pretty obvious that that wasn't going to happen. My grandparents were always great, but our own nuclear family was, well, very well-named: nuclear.”
Butler also had a fraught relationship with Donahue, who later died of lung cancer at age 40, right around Christmastime 25 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1996. While Patty sang about a meet-cute holiday romance in “Christmas Wrapping,” her own love life was decidedly less Lifetime-holiday-movie-esque.
“I have some good [memories], some not,” Butler says of Donahue, who retired from performing in the mid-‘80s to work behind the scenes in A&R. “She's substantially responsible for having our band break apart. But on the other hand, this was a smart, very funny woman, a trooper who took a lot of chances, in that she had never really done anything like this. She was a very good actress who could take a role and run with it. She has a lot of instincts that made her appealing. I think she could have done more potentially an actress. There were some opportunities that she turned down. I’ve got to be careful what I'm saying here, but I know a lot of women who are talented and perhaps don't have enough of a sense of how talented they are, due to self-esteem issues. And I think Patty was not aware of how much chops she had. She had a lot of chops. I just wish that her choice of boyfriends had been more supportive and encouraging of her, because I believe she really was a natural. It's too bad. I think she fell in with, um, bad companions, shall we say? And that had a negative effect on both her self-image and what she could have done with this attention she was getting from people. I don't think she was comfortable with [the attention], or knew how to parlay it into a more of a creative career.
“We were all trying to be in encouraging,” Butler continues wistfully. “But I think that when it came to dealing with men, her own family history — presuppose that — made it so she wouldn't take our word for it when we were our saying, ‘You can really do this. You're really good at this. You should stick with it.’ I think her father left way too early, and a single mother raised her. She also was a party girl, and sometimes her personality would change when she would party just a little too much. She became kind of a different person, and that was hard to handle. She became very combative and I think, like most abused people, they're very, very oversensitive. But then there's the odd inversion of them being attracted to [abusive tendencies] in their mates. … She was in a music environment, and manipulative people could come out of the audience and try to get into her head and whatever. We tried to protect her. There were warnings from us saying, ‘You should watch out for X, because he's not what you think he is. He's a sleazeball.’ But sometimes she resented and rebelled against the protection, and I think she fell into some bad companions. And so these outside forces, these bad influences in her life, is ultimately what led or contributed to the breakup.”
Butler, who “had a lot of big ideas” for the band, confesses that the Waitresses’ split in 1984 “kind of broke my heart, to be honest. I have a lot of blame that I need to take on myself, because I wasn't aware of the stresses. My preoccupation was trying to be established as a writer and to keep this group of very cranky, very talented musicians together and write things that would not bore them. I had a real hard time when the whole thing blew up. I had four or five years of just trying to reinvent myself and stay somehow active as a writer. It was not a happy time for me. It was a real blow to have the thing blow up. It took a long time for me to hit some kind of normal after that.” The Waitresses never reunited, not even for a one-off occasion, but Butler notes that shortly before Donahue’s death, “There was a bit of a rapport reestablished on the phone, because I knew she was sick and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to at least let her know that I cared about her and I wished her well. We had a few phone calls and even thought about, ‘Hey, let's do a reunion for the American Cancer Society,’ but she didn't make it.”
However, Butler believes Donahue’s complex personality was a key reason why “Christmas Wrapping” became such a perennial holiday favorite. “I think that's why Patty rings true, because there is a little melancholy in the song,” he says. As for reasons why the song continues to connect with listeners 40 holiday seasons later, he theorizes, “The thing I've grasped on is that people want to know that there's a force for good going on in the background, and that maybe everything will all work out. Maybe with the stress of the holidays, all this kind of Hallmark-card cheerfulness just doesn't ring true in a more cynical age — and it was certainly a more cynical age then. The song kind of captures that, but also takes the cynical and turns it on its head.”
The endearing, quirky result, driven by Donahue’s deadpan, attitudinal delivery, is sort of the ‘80s equivalent of a Sex and the City carol, with would-be actress Donahue cast as a new wave Carrie Bradshaw. “I do have to bring up the 'silent character’ in the song: the city of New York,” says Butler, who also drew some inspiration from Kurtis Blow’s 1979 single “Christmas Rappin’” and the burgeoning New York hip-hop scene surrounding the ska/jazz/R&B-influenced Waitresses at the time. “I tried to write a female character that was an urban person, and her stresses and strains are very urban. The idea of missed connections is very New York. Sometimes you have no choice but to spend Christmas alone. You're single and you have limited funds — hence the small turkey for one, soup for one. So, our character is an urban person, a kind of everygirl, experiencing this. So, I thought of telling that story with the O. Henry twist at the end. … And if you believe that ending, well then, I've got a bridge to sell you!”
Butler pauses and laughingly adds, “Hey, I said I was a recovering Scrooge. I didn't say I was cured.”
But four decades later, Butler seems mostly recovered and at peace with “Christmas Wrapping’s” complicated legacy. “To have something like this that has stuck to the culture is a gift, and I am grateful for it,” he stresses. “The song really is a Christmas miracle, and I'm not being silly in saying that. I'm touched. I think I needed it. I feel it was almost paid forward in an emotional kind of way to say, ‘Hey, you did good work, even though you grumbled and bitched.’ Even though we were pretty tired or whatever, we did good work. The culture accepts that. We make a lot of people happy at this time of year when they hear this thing. And I can't think of any better gift. To not acknowledge that and be grateful for it would be ridiculously selfish and stupid.
“It's really true that if I'm driving around somewhere, shopping for a gift or something, and it comes on the on car radio, there's something about the EQ and the compression, how radio stations alter the sound — man, it just roars, and it's infectious. I am amazed at how it snaps me around and says, ‘Lighten up and get in the, the spirit, guy!’” Butler concludes with a grin. “And that's not B.S. That honestly happens. I'm waiting for it to happen this year. I have not heard it yet, but I can't look for it. It's gotta surprise me.”