a Review of an Overlooked, Underrated Christmas Carol
Like other legendary singles that have come to recognition in the decades following their release, it all started with Shrek. Or, to be more precise, Shrek the Halls, a 2007 made-for-TV comedy special that premiered on ABC. I remember sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen one early December day when a commercial for the short appeared on the television set. While the familiar figures of Shrek and company were preparing for the upcoming Christmas party, I couldn’t help but take note of the montage music playing in the background. It began with sleigh bells and sleigh chimes; a classic evocation of “Jingle Bells” with the piano to accompany. But then the electric guitar riff came in, awakening the audience to the song’s true identity. This was no regular Christmas carol; a fact made even more apparent when the listener’s first introduction to the track begins with the oft-quoted “Bah, Humbug!”
Here was my first introduction to “Christmas Wrapping”: a holiday single released by the 80’s new wave band, the Waitresses. The song itself was written by guitarist/backing vocalist Chris Butler, with the rest of the ’81 lineup consisting of David Hofstra on bass, Mars Williams on sax and reeds, Dan Klayman on keyboards/organ, Billy Ficca on drums, Ariel Winter on backing vocals, and the late Patty Donahue on lead vocals, taking on the role of a stressed-out Christmas consumer who vows to take it easy this year and not become overwhelmed by the hype of the holiday season, all the while reminiscing about a potential love interest and each chance encounter that doesn’t amount to anything beyond conflicting schedules, sunburns and a dead car. That is until…well, I’ll let you take a listen for yourself to find out how the story ends.
Welcome back! Now that you’ve experienced or revisited the track, it’s time to do some unpacking and explain why I (in accumulation with many other articles published before and after me) believe this song deserves greater recognition and respect.
First, we have the instrumentation. And there are a lot of things to enjoy here. As mentioned earlier, we begin with an evocation of classic Christmas carols with the bell-chime and piano harmonies, before the music takes a swift and swingin’ detour via the funky electric-bass combination backing the verses, the head reed player having the time of his life at the end of the LP track (my favorite version), and last but certainly not least, the end of each verse segueing into an emphatic succession of bumping kick-drums, and the blares of jazzy sax and a company of blasting brass. All of these elements are combined to create an original, upbeat soundscape that doesn’t drown itself in oversentimentality.
I feel it’s safe to say that Christmas is a holiday immersed in sugary hyperbole, which is reflected heavily with your local radio stations or personal holiday playlist. When December (or November, or even October, depending on how early you celebrate) comes around, there’s a sudden, massive influx of big band swing mixed with equally grandiose names behind them upholding the songs of Christmas’ past. Though this certainly isn’t the case for every Christmas carol, this phenomena has firmly established its mark of influence on a more contemporary audience. Now, although traditional Christmas carols have the benefit of being recognizable and easy to pass down and imprint onto a younger generation, it’s not uncommon for audiences to become passive or even antipathetic towards them due to overfamiliarity.
But this band didn’t play like that.
It would’ve been so easy for the Waitresses to tack on a now almost-obligatory holiday single covering music that has long surpassed its copyright span and still make a profit from it. Instead, the audience is presented with an entirely new (wave) type of Christmas carol that still manages to make itself relevant to a contemporary audience. With the exception of the now-dated “Most of ’81 passed along those lines,” and reference to A&P, the lyrics hold up very well and do a great job at highlighting the side of Christmas often overlooked by a lot of mainstream holiday hits: the fatigue of the holiday hype.
Call it serendipity, but I find the correlation between “the Waitresses” title and the condition of a busy, bustling scene to be extremely appropriate. A multitude of people, myself included, find themselves wrapped up in yearly obligations which climax towards the winter solstice. Whether it be through work, keeping in contact with friends and family, making last minute purchases, or trudging through the snow (coming from a Sconnie), the year’s end can be a very chaotic point in time. And this — coupled with the current backdrop of the tumultuous 2020 — is why we as an audience can sympathize with the narrator for wanting the winter to end. And yet, despite their best efforts, the narrator is still sucked into the holiday disarray, evoking a sense of ironic humor, charm, and general cheekiness.
But we’re not done just yet.
We’ve covered instruments, lyrics, and thematic content. But we haven’t covered the vocals which, for me personally, are the cherry-on-top that defines the piece as a unique cohesive whole. While some people may understandably be turned off by Patty Donahue’s seemingly lackadaisical delivery, I believe it to be one of the strongest points on the entire song. Flat delivery in music is not easy to pull off, but Donahue manages to do it excellently. The tonal quality offers a nice contrast with the blasting, excitable brass and closing jazz, but there’s even more to it than that. Admittedly, I can’t explain in good enough terms as to why it works, but I’ll give it my best shot: I believe that Donahue’s delivery is remarkable because the vocal tone doesn’t fall into the category of inflated, manufactured sentimentality, but it also doesn’t fall into cynicism or boredom. For lack of a better term, I like to refer to it as “everyman delivery”, where a vocalist’s delivery takes on a more conversational and relaxed quality. The voice isn’t the focal point — that job is delegated to the lyrics. Another example that comes to mind is Suzanne Vegas’ “Tom’s Diner”, released a few years after “Christmas Wrapping”. In both songs, the strength isn’t channeled primarily into being a vocal virtuoso; it’s in the story being told. The deliveries don’t draw attention to themselves; they serve as a way to bring the listener closer to the narrative, a more-personal type of invitation into the inner-workings of the narrator.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that what Christmas is about?
Religion aside, it’s fairly safe to say that a contemporary Christmas can be described as a collective symbol of consumerism, heightened emotions and obligations, but above all, community. The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” checks off every single box while also providing the listener with a fun(ky) and charming Christmas single that catches the listener’s ear and invites them in with its relatable and relevant lyrics without being oversaturated in sentimentality or heavy-handedness.
With everything I just covered, you may very well believe that this is my favorite Christmas song, though I don’t think I could provide a concrete answer to this, for two reasons. The first is that the collective Christmas catalogue is so expansive and covers so many genres and cultures over numerous centuries that I think narrowing it down to one single piece of work would be too simplistic of an answer on my part. My second reasoning is that, while the song itself is definitely higher-tier on my subjective holiday hit list, I don’t necessarily think it reaches musical Jesus status. After all, there are those aforementioned dated references and while I do think the ending wraps up (no pun intended) pretty charmingly and befitting of the Christmas spirit, I really would’ve been interested in hearing a Christmas carol that keeps a consistent message of taking it easy and flying solo over the holidays, thus providing an even more contemporary and overlooked aspect of the holiday season, as opposed to a more formulaic happy ending. But at the same time, I realize this alternative ending wouldn’t have nearly the same communal or emotional depth that makes a Christmas song, well, Christmas-y.
But whether you like it or don’t, I still think that “Christmas Wrapping” is an important single, as it provides the audience with an accurate reflection of modern society through its message and solid sound quality. In fact, the first time I listened to it, I thought it was part of the “Shrek the Halls” original soundtrack. So the next time you’re listening to the radio or adding songs to your Spotify holiday mix, be sure to give this one a listen. The Waitresses have served you a true Christmas treat.
(Special thanks to Kate and Doug for their help with music terminology)