Creativity is a funny thing. You can work all your life to create something on your own terms, only to find that the quick throwaway thing you did under duress is your greatest accomplishment.
In the producer-centric music industry, you can end up with convoluted stories like the creation of Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye, a throwaway done by a couple of struggling musicians who literally just needed a B-side for what they hoped would be their hit single. Instead, they invented “jock rock.” And they invented a band on the spot to go out and promote it.
The story’s a little happier for Chris Butler, the songwriter and guitarist behind The Waitresses. His band was a short-lived mix of eclectic personalities — a drummer from Television, an avant-garde saxophonist and occasional Psychedelic Furs sideman, a funky female bass player who laid down one of the most fluid bass lines in a pop song and later played with Sting in his jazz phase, and a lead singer who could used her limited range as an asset, winning us over with a bit of feminist swagger.
The Waitresses had a bit of success. We all know I Know What Boys Like, and they did the theme for the TV show Square Pegs. They’re worth a deep dive into a shallow catalog — No Guilt is a particularly fun bit of punk sarcasm distilled into a breakup song.
But the song that you’ll hear each Christmas — so ubiquitous that you might take it for granted — is something Butler scratched out under orders from his record company, finishing the lyrics in a taxi.
He was stunned and maybe a little disappointed that Christmas Wrapping turned out to be their big radio breakthrough. It was a bit of sweetness from a band that dealt in snark. But he has made peace with it, and he takes a bit of holiday cheer (and a decent amount of money) from hearing it each year. In this interview, he says we can all relate to the “Bah, humbug!” attitude and holiday stress that starts this song, but eventually, Christmas wins over even the grumpiest of us.
Perhaps he has also realized that, in that cab, he wrote an enduring holiday classic.
It helps that the listener can’t help rooting for singer Patty Donahue, who sounds like that office co-worker we’ve all known who works way too hard and deserves some better luck. A glamorous singer wouldn’t work for this song. Kelly Clarkson, maybe, but certainly not Mariah Carey, who has her own Christmas classic.
But it’s not just the delivery or that bouncy Tracy Wormworth bass line. Butler also came up with some great details in his “girl meets boy, girl and boy can’t figure out a good time to get together for 11 months, girl and boy finally bump into each other again by chance on Christmas Eve” story.
Because she’s really not grumpy. The “Bah, humbug” is immediately followed by “no, that’s too strong, ’cause it is my favorite holiday.” She’s just stressed, man. She’s been so busy this year that she hasn’t even managed to see the guy she met last winter. And winter itself gets difficult — “get this winter over with!” she says with some emphasis before going back to “flashback to springtime …”
And it’s clever. In addition to working in a bunch of Christmas-carol shoutouts (“Hardly dashing through the snow / Cause I bundled up too tight” and “When what to my wondering eyes should appear / In the line is that guy I’ve been chasing all year” are the best), Butler tosses in the subtly poetic “now the calendar’s just one page” and an utterly charming opening line for the last verse: “A&P has provided me with the world’s smallest turkey.”
Why is this song included in a series intended to decipher lyrics that aren’t completely obvious? Simply because one thing we can do when the calendar’s just one page is to stop and appreciate things we might take for granted. Wherever you’re listening to the usual parade of holiday tunes, perhaps including the occasional Mellowmas classic, it’s worth stopping to think about how wonderful this song really is.
So that’s the hidden message. Get over your grumpiness, trudge out in the snow and find that holiday spirit.
Have a merry one.