‘Christmas Wrapping,’ an unlikely hit for The Waitresses, spreads cheer 40 years later

·8 min read

Akron songwriter Chris Butler never expected to create a holiday classic.

Forty years later, he’s still amazed when he hears the tune blaring on the radio, wafting through a mall or playing in a movie or TV show.

The guitarist wrote “Christmas Wrapping” in 1981 for his group, The Waitresses, featuring fellow Kent State alum Patty Donahue on lead vocals, Tracy Wormworth on bass, Dan Klayman on keyboards, Mars Williams on saxophone and Billy Ficca on drums.

Chris Butler
Chris Butler

More: Vintage photos: 50 memorable Cleveland TV personalities

“I was probably the least likely person to write a Christmas song,” Butler said. “It’s not that I was Jewish or Muslim. It’s that I was a Scrooge. Christmas had always been a pain in the ass for me, frankly.”

Contacted at his home in suburban Akron, the 72-year-old songwriter was happy to reminisce about the tune on its 40th anniversary.

The Waitresses, from left to right, Chris Butler, Dan Klayman, Billy Ficca, Tracy Wormworth, Patty Donahue and Mars Williams, visit Jerry’s Dinner in Kent during the group’s “All Night Diner Tour” in 1981.
The Waitresses, from left to right, Chris Butler, Dan Klayman, Billy Ficca, Tracy Wormworth, Patty Donahue and Mars Williams, visit Jerry’s Dinner in Kent during the group’s “All Night Diner Tour” in 1981.

Unwrapping the song

“Christmas Wrapping” tells the big-city story of a young woman, voiced by Donahue, who is feeling worn out after a busy year and vows to sit out the holidays. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! But I think I’ll miss this one this year,” she sings.

More: Akron native’s song ‘Walk Like an Egyptian,’ a smash hit for The Bangles, is still catchy after 35 years

More: Their day did come: Akron singer Ruby Nash Garnett recalls 1960s success with The Romantics

More: Helloooo, Akron: Ten concerts that rocked the 1970s

Unable to connect with a guy she likes amid a series of misfortunes, the narrator changes her tune after bumping into the man in a grocery store and bonding over cranberries: “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Couldn’t miss this one this year!”

Butler was a member of Akron’s Tin Huey in 1978 when he formed The Waitresses as a side project.

The group was on the road in July 1981, promoting the song “I Know What Boys Like,” when Butler received a call from Michael Zilkha, the co-founder of ZE Records with Michel Esteban.

The Waitresses, from left, Dan Klayman, Billy Ficca, Chris Butler, Tracy Wormworth, Mars Williams and Patty Donahue, take a publicity photo in 1982.
The Waitresses, from left, Dan Klayman, Billy Ficca, Chris Butler, Tracy Wormworth, Mars Williams and Patty Donahue, take a publicity photo in 1982.

Zilkha wanted The Waitresses to contribute an original song for a Christmas album with other acts on the label, including Was (Not Was), Alan Vega, Suicide, Davitt Sigerson, Cristina, August Darnell, Charlélie Couture and Material with Nona Hendryx.

“I hoped that he would just forget about the idea,” Butler recalled. “Nope. Middle of August, I think, he says, ‘OK, I’ve got you booked into Electric Lady Studios on Eighth Street at St. Mark’s Place in New York, ready for the Christmas song.’ ”

Written in New York

Butler had to write something in a hurry. He barricaded himself in his tiny apartment in the West Village and began coming up with Christmas ideas in the middle of a sweltering summer.

“I’ve still got the cassettes of me kind of grunting in the microphone, trying to come up with parts to present to the band,” he said. “That’s kind of the way we worked. I would come up with an idea for a song and figure out a few parts and then present it.”

Chris Butler, who wrote the holiday classic “Christmas Wrapping,” lives in Greater Akron.
Chris Butler, who wrote the holiday classic “Christmas Wrapping,” lives in Greater Akron.

The irony was that Butler wasn’t too keen on Christmas. During his childhood, he hadn’t found much joy in the holiday. His family, which he described as “pretty toxic,” got into quarrels at gatherings and didn’t necessarily believe in giving presents to kids.

“Anything you need we get you all year long,” he recalls being told.

As an adult living in New York, Butler found December to be a time of stress. He felt obligated to battle the crowds and go shopping for gifts for people he barely knew at the same time he worked overtime to make ends meet as a freelance writer.

“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 and I needed the dough,” he said.

He channeled those emotions into “Christmas Wrapping,” whose title is a play on rapping. He recalls the New York music scene of the time as a swirl of hip-hop, salsa, rock, ska, reggae and jazz — and the sound of the South Bronx was just breaking into the mainstream.

“Rap was certainly in the milieu,” Butler said. “It was more street poetry. It wasn’t the monster that it is now. It took over the world.”

New York rapper Kurtis Blow had released a song titled “Christmas Rappin’ ” in 1979. Butler said he “appropriated a pun” because the lyrics he crafted to “Christmas Wrapping” had an O. Henry wraparound twist.

“I thought ‘OK, wrap. There’s a double or triple pun there.’ It all wraps up with a neat little bow at the end,” he said.

Three days in studio

Butler delivered his outline to the band and the veteran musicians got to work in early September. Michael Frondelli served as studio engineer and co-producer.

The Waitresses knocked it out in three days: one day to record, one day to do overdubs and one day to mix.

“That’s all we had,” Butler said. “Bang bang bang.”

Chris Butler and Patty Donahue are pictured in 1981 at Electric Lady Studios in New York as The Waitresses worked on “Christmas Wrapping.” Studio engineer and co-producer Michael Frondelli took the snapshots and apparently wrote the captions.
Chris Butler and Patty Donahue are pictured in 1981 at Electric Lady Studios in New York as The Waitresses worked on “Christmas Wrapping.” Studio engineer and co-producer Michael Frondelli took the snapshots and apparently wrote the captions.

He remembers plugging his Vox Mark VI guitar into a Marshall amplifier for the first time.

“And it just roared,” Butler said. “I go: ‘Oh, man. I’ve got to get me one of those.’ ”

All the brass was multitracked. It was layered so Mars Williams would play an alto sax one time and a tenor another time to make it sound like a big horn section. The band enlisted David Buck to play trumpet.

As far as Butler is concerned, the funky, rollicking bass line is what truly makes the 5-minute song.

“You give something like that to Tracy Wormworth and she just runs with it,” he said.

Chris Butler has track sheets for “Christmas Wrapping” from its recording sessions at Electric Lady Studios in New York.
Chris Butler has track sheets for “Christmas Wrapping” from its recording sessions at Electric Lady Studios in New York.

Donahue delivers the lyrics in a singsong manner. It’s not a traditional rap, but “maybe by 1981 standards it was close,” Butler said.

With so many words in “Christmas Wrapping,” he joked that it’s more of a master’s thesis than a song.

“I didn’t do Patty any favors,” he said. “I mean, there’s barely room to catch a breath. In fact, the last verse, she ran out of air.”

They had to punch in a line or two through studio wizardry, but it sounded seamless and listeners never knew.

Michael Frondelli, engineer at Electric Lady Studios in New York, took these candid pictures of Tracy Wormworth, Patty Donahue and Dan Klayman in 1981 as The Waitresses worked on “Christmas Wrapping.” He apparently wrote the captions, too.
Michael Frondelli, engineer at Electric Lady Studios in New York, took these candid pictures of Tracy Wormworth, Patty Donahue and Dan Klayman in 1981 as The Waitresses worked on “Christmas Wrapping.” He apparently wrote the captions, too.

ZE Records released the album “A Christmas Record” in November 1981. Did Butler know that “Christmas Wrapping” would be a success?

“Oh, hell no,” he said. “We did our best because we were pros, but we just promptly forgot about it.”

An unexpected hit

After The Waitresses returned to the road, Butler remembers calling his girlfriend to check in before a gig in Rochester, New York.

“Man, you are all over the radio,” she told him.

Great! Butler thought “I Know What Boys Like” had finally hit the airwaves.

“No,” she said. “Your Christmas song.”

“I was floored and I’m still floored,” he said. “We relearned it at sound check and then played it that night and then it pretty much stayed in our repertoire until we blew up.”

When performing live, Butler and Wormworth helped finish some of the lines so Donahue could catch a breath here and there.

“It required a workaround,” Butler said.

Long after the holiday season, fans demanded that The Waitresses play the song live, so the group did so until disbanding in 1984.

Mars Williams and Billy Ficca are pictured at Electric Lady Studios in New York during the recording of “Christmas Wrapping.” Engineer Michael Frondelli took the snapshots and apparently wrote the captions.
Mars Williams and Billy Ficca are pictured at Electric Lady Studios in New York during the recording of “Christmas Wrapping.” Engineer Michael Frondelli took the snapshots and apparently wrote the captions.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Donahue’s death. She was only 40 when she died of lung cancer Dec. 9, 1996.

“Christmas Wrapping” improbably became a holiday favorite. It’s virtually impossible to make it through December without hearing it.

Cover versions

Among the artists who have covered it are Spice Girls, Kylie Minogue, Miranda Cosgrove, The Donnas, Bella Thorne, Save Ferris and the Broadway cast of “Wicked.”

“Last year, there were a bunch of COVID parodies, which were a lot of fun,” Butler said.

The song has appeared on such TV shows as “The Office,” “Cobra Kai,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Malcolm in the Middle.”

Christmas came early this year when Netflix released “The Tomorrow War” in July. The song was featured prominently during the first five minutes of the sci-fi movie.

Chris Butler still owns the Vox Mark VI guitar that he used to record “Christmas Wrapping.”
Chris Butler still owns the Vox Mark VI guitar that he used to record “Christmas Wrapping.”

Yes, Butler receives royalties for the work. “I don’t live a limousine life, but we have ramen for the next year,” he joked.

He still can’t believe his 40-year-old song remains a part of pop culture. Even today, he isn’t sure why this one clicked.

During the hustle and bustle of the holidays, people seem to relate to the weary protagonist as she rushes around before Christmas and finds out there’s a force for good.

“Maybe that’s the universal,” he said. “People want to know maybe that it’s going to be OK. It’s all going to work out.”

Remarkably, the song helped soften the heart of a self-professed Scrooge.

Butler said “Christmas Wrapping” has blindsided him many times. He might be in a grumpy mood, doing last-minute shopping, driving from store to store, when a familiar tune blasts out of his car radio:

“Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Couldn’t miss this one this year!”

“It’s almost like I paid something forward to give me a slap in the face,” Butler said. “To say: Look, it’s going to be OK. Lighten up.”

Mark J. Price can be reached at mprice@thebeaconjournal.com.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Songwriter Chris Butler explains origin of ‘Christmas Wrapping’ in 1981

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting