This is the 49th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
While living in Akron, Ohio, in the late ’70s songwriter and guitarist Chris Butler wrote and recorded a song called “I Know What Boys Like.” He played all the instruments himself, and had his friend Patty Donahue record the vocals. When Butler released the song as a single, he credited it to a fake band called The Waitresses, taking the name from the content of a friend’s T-shirt.
When Butler moved to New York City, he shopped “I Know What Boys Like” to various labels. He landed a deal with Ze Records, who was willing to sign The Waitresses. Because there wasn’t an actual Waitresses line-up, he cobbled one together by recruiting his friends. Donahue, who sang on the initial recording of “I Know What Boys Like,” was brought on as the band’s lead singer. The band made its live debut on New Year’s Eve 1980.
The band spent a good chunk of 1981 touring, trying to make a name for itself. The band had limited success, though, as sales for “I Know What Boys Like” weren’t that impressive. In August of that year, the band took a break from touring so that it could return to Manhattan contribute a song to a Ze Records compilation. Each of the label’s bands was asked to record a Christmas song, but after a grueling and discouraging tour, the band was not feeling cheerful. Butler pulled some riffs that he had been saving, and in about a week, he wrote a song about a single woman who was so busy that she couldn’t be bothered by Christmas.
“Everybody I knew in New York was running around like a bunch of fiends,” Butler explained. “It wasn’t about joy. It was something to cope with.”
The song became “Christmas Wrapping,” a punny reference to the emergence style of rap (and an apparent reference to they way Donahue’s delivery was “almost” like rapping, though I don’t hear it). Butler finished the final lyrics in the cab ride to the studio. The band recorded it in two days, then went back on the road. The band’s members forgot about it until Christmas, when it became ubiquitous on the radio. It became The Waitresses’ signature song, Butler explained:
We had to play the song up until, like, June. And we had to capitalize on it – ‘Hi, this is our new album. We’re the people who did that song back at Christmas…’ I am an official one-hit wonder. Except I have two half-hits: The Christmas song, and ‘I Know What Boys Like,’ which never quite broke through but never quite went away.
It didn’t chart in 1981, but was reissued in 1982, reaching Number 45 in the UK Singles Charts. Since then, it has become a radio staple around Christmas time.
As the song has been covered over the years, the most common modifications have been in the three areas:
- Changes of genre (or at least updates to reflect pop trends)
- Changing “most of ’81” to the year of the cover’s release
- Changing language to match the dialect and slang of the region or country where the cover artist lives
All three of these changes can be found on The Spice Girls’ “Christmas Wrapping,” released in 1998 on the single for “Goodbye.” For starters, it was slicker, dancier, and more polished than the original, sounding less like the new wave of 1981 and more like, well, The Spice Girls. And along with those changes, most of the American references were adapted to be Bristish: “A&P” became “Tesco,” and “grocery” became “gar-age.”
When ska/alternative band Save Ferris covered “Christmas Wrapping” that same year for a compilation for the radio station KROQ, the band rewrote the entire song to reflect a Jewish perspective. When sung by a narrator who celebrates Hanukkah and feels overwhelmed by the ubiquity of Christmas, “I think I’ll skip this one this year” takes on a new meaning.
The Donnas recorded a version of “Christmas Wrapping” that was louder and noisier than the original: the guitars were crunchier, the drums heavier, and the vocals shouty-er. Whereas Donahue delivered Butler’s lyrics in a playful sing-speak style, there was nothing playful about the harsh tone of The Donnas’ cover. It was all “bah humbug,” with nothing “merry” about it.
Miranda Cosgrove, the actress who gained recognition appearing on “Drake & Josh” and “iCarly,” released a version of “Christmas Wrapping” in 2008. The backing track sounded pretty faithful to The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” but what stood out is that Cosgrove was just 15 when she released this song. The lyrics are innocent enough, as there’s nothing explicitly stated about the nature of the relationship between the narrator and the guy she’s been “chasing all year.” It does sound weird to hear a 15-year-old sing about “Christmas by myself this year,” but as we will see, Cosgrove wouldn’t remain the youngest person to record this song.
Comprising studio musicians based in Los Angeles, Vitamin String Quartet has made a name for itself performing string ensemble arrangements of popular songs. Vitamin String Quartet’s “Christmas Wrapping,” from the 2010’s “The VSQ Christmas Album,” was instantly recognizable, indicating both the talent of the musicians and the strength of Butler’s original arrangement.
Comedian Doug Benson’s “Christmas Wrapping,” from the Comedy Death Ray compilation, “Xmas CD 2010,” sounded like a drunken karaoke performance: he was semi-rapping, only sometimes in rhythm, and broke out into laughter a few times. But it’s hard to shit on a guy who so clearly sounded like he was having fun.
Indie duo Summer Camp, which comprises married couple Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey, recorded a version of “Christmas Wrapping” that appeared on 2010’s “A Christmas Gift for You from Moshi Moshi Records.” In Warmsley’s and Sankey’s hands, “Christmas Wrapping” was recast a dreamy song with airy synths and ambient noise. The fuzzy keyboards were a perfect balance to Sankey’s smooth voice. Summer Camp later released the song digitally, paired with a cover of “Last Christmas.”
Just in time for the 2011 Christmas season, New Jersey indie/punk band The Front Bottoms recorded a cover of “Christmas Wrapping.” The cover, for which the band shot a music video that featured drunken Santas, was instrumentally faithful to the original. Vocally, it was rougher, sounding like a karaoke tribute performed by barn animals attempting to emulate Superchunk. But it was entertaining nonetheless. The band cut most of the verses, but left the gender references as is, giving the song a gay vibe.
Lovestarrs is a synthpop trio from England that was previously known as The Good Natured. In 2012, The Good Natured covered “Christmas Wrapping” in an electronic, poppy style that seemed modeled after Siouxsie and the Banshees, both in terms of tone and accent. The song ended with a not-quite-rap part, rhyming “It’s getting home/It’s getting late/Trudge on home to celebrate/Cel-, Cel, Celebrate.”
Ska group Slow Gherkin also featured a male vocalist singing the lyrics as written about a guy who almost got away. The use of horns and pianos over keyboards gave the song a less-polished feel, sounding more like a live performance than something edited in a studio.
8 Bit Universe is a bit of a novelty act, as its schtick is to record 8-bit versions of popular songs. Some songs work better than others, but “Christmas Wrapping” is an appropriate tune to convert. After all, it’s a song highly defined by its era, which happens to be the same era as 8-bit video game songs. And the story described by the narrator of “Christmas Wrapping” could make for a decent Nintendo game.
Kidz Bop, the collective that re-records popular songs with child vocalists, included a children’s version of “Christmas Wrapping” on the 2014 Christmas compilation, “Kidz Bop Christmas Wish List.” There’s nothing overtly inappropriate about the lyrics in “Christmas Wrapping,” but it seems like an odd juxtaposition to have children singing of the perils of dating. I said the same thing when mentioning The Vienna Boys Choir’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Still, though, there could be worse songs to hear sung by children; the kids’ versions of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” top the list.
“Riot pop” band Matagot’s slowed-down “Christmas Wrapping” appeared on the 2015 compilation, “Riot Grrrl Christmas.” The singers’ cool British accents, when combined with the noisy guitar distortion, gave the song a certain edge reminiscent of Elastica. (Or maybe we just really like guitars and British accents).
That same year, Kylie Minogue teamed with Iggy Pop to recored “Christmas Wrapping” for Minogue’s album, “Kylie Christmas.” The song included the same instrumentation as the original, though it was slightly more bouncy, which is not surprising given that everything Minogue releases has a danceability score of at least 4 on a 0-to-10 scale. What distinguished this version — besides their unmistakable voices — were the asides and ad-libs from Iggy Pop. The only thing creepier than him saying “Merry Christmas, baby” was when he said, “Heheheh” after Minogue said, “Suddenly we laughed and laughed.”
It’s now a considered a must-have for the season, periodically making the list of best Christmas songs. Daily Telegraph writer Bernadette McNulty called it “one of the most charming, insouciant festive songs ever.” In an AllMusic review for The Waitresses’ EP “I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts,” Andy Hinds called it “one of the best holiday pop tunes ever recorded.”
That praise is well-deserved, as the song masterfully acknowledges that the holiday season can be a busy, tiring, and dread-filled time. But beneath that, the song’s insight into what it means to be single makes it more than than just a Christmas song. Butler’s lyrics, when combined with Donahue’s couldn’t-be-bothered, apathetic delivery, are a perfect depiction of how exhausting it is for single adults to try to date as they get older. It can be a daunting task at any time of the year, but particularly around the holidays, when one’s single status and loneliness comes into sharp focus. And yet, Butler and Donahue managed to make a song about being single that wasn’t fueled by anger, jealousy, or self-pity. When the narrator announces she’s staying in by herself, she does with a sense of relief and contentment. It functions not just as an acceptance of her single status, but a celebration.
That theme is why the song can be listened to year round, because it’s a message that can be lost in our “you must be in a couple” culture. It also is why the song has been ripe for covers in multiple styles in the 35 years since its release, because even if wordplays on the word “rap” are dated, the need to cope with the stresses of the holidays is timeless.