Couldn't Miss This One: Behind 'Christmas Wrapping'

Originally published on December 27, 2016 5:23 am

Chris Butler founded The Waitresses, a smart-aleck New Wave band, in late-'70s Akron, Ohio. He recalls a long-ago summer when the owner of ZE Records asked him and his collaborators to come up with a Christmas song.

"He came up in July, June of 1981 and said, 'Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful? Let's do a Christmas album with all of our artists.' Now, at the time, the artists were Lydia Lunch, Alan Vega from Suicide, people you don't normally associate with warm, fuzzy Christmas feelings," Butler says, laughing.

Butler ignored the request, but by the fall, the owner was insistent.

"I took a little bit of this half-written song, a little bit of this half-written song and wrote kind of a short story, and we literally put it together at the last minute — had a couple rehearsals," Butler says. "We recorded it in, I think, two days, mixed it in one, and then forgot about it."

At the time, the band was on the road touring behind its song "I Know What Boys Like."

"I called home to my girlfriend and say, 'Just checking in,' and she said, 'Oh, you're all over the radio!' I go, 'Oh, great, finally. Nine months of flogging "I Know What Boys Like." It cracked college-radio ghetto and has hit mainstream radio.' And she goes, 'No, no. It's your Christmas song.' 'Whaaa, that?!' "

The Waitresses had to relearn the song in order to add it to the band's set list. That was some work for lead singer Patty Donahue, who had to memorize almost 500 words. "Christmas Wrapping" was a spoof on Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin' " that had come out a year earlier. It's a short story about a woman who just wants to spend the holiday alone.

"Christmas Wrapping" sold especially well in the U.K., and in 1998 the song got a big boost when The Spice Girls recorded a version. It's been covered by the children's group Kidz Bop and performed on the TV show Glee.

John Goehrke of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says around three-quarters of its inductees have made a Christmas record. Goehrke says holiday songs can have a lasting impact, no matter how silly.

"If you were 6 years old and the first record you got was The Chipmunks' Christmas album, I guarantee, if you heard it today, no matter how old you are, it would actually hold a special place in your heart," he says.

Christmas music continues to sell, year after year, in a window of only about six weeks around the holidays.

"Five of the Top 20 all-time best-selling singles are Christmas records," Goehrke says. "Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas Is You' from '94 — that's in the Top 10. That has sold more copies than 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' by the Beatles."

For his part, Chris Butler says he certainly can't live off "Christmas Wrapping," but he does get a nice little annuity from the seasonal hit.

"I know I've done better work and things that I care about a lot more," he says. "But the fact that you get one at all is a gift. And I think I'd rather have that on my tombstone than, 'He knew what boys like.' "

But for a guy who never liked Christmas much, Butler sounds pretty sincere when he says it's not just about the money.

"I will be in a grumpy mood around the 23rd, 22nd, 20th of December," Butler says. "And I'll be at the shoe store in the mall buying something or whatever, and that song will come over the radio and it blindsides me. And it just smacks me on the side of the head and says, 'Lighten up.' "

So for the past two decades, Butler has presented his Wrappie Award. He makes a $100 donation to the Children's Library in Hoboken, N.J., where he now lives, in the name of the first person to hear his song played in public, starting right after Thanksgiving.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now to a Christmas song that started as a throwaway and has become a holiday favorite. Mark Uricky, from member station WCPN, has the story behind "Christmas Wrapping."

MARK URICKY, BYLINE: The Waitresses was a smart-aleck New Wave band born in the late 1970s in Akron, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW WHAT BOYS LIKE")

THE WAITRESSES: (Singing) I know what boys like. I know what guys want.

URICKY: Founder and songwriter Chris Butler recalls that one summer, the owner of their independent record label asked them to come up with a Christmas song.

CHRIS BUTLER: July, June of 1981, he came up - oh, wouldn't it be wonderful? Let's do a Christmas album with all our artists. Now, at the time, the artists were, like, Lydia Lunch, Alan Vega from Suicide, people you don't normally associate with warm, fuzzy Christmas feelings.

URICKY: Butler ignored the request. But by the fall, the owner was insistent.

BUTLER: I took a little bit of this half-written song, a little bit of this half-written song, and wrote kind of a short story. And we literally put it together at the last minute, had a couple rehearsals. And we recorded it in, I think, two days, mixed it in one and then forgot about it.

URICKY: Because the band was on the road, touring behind its single, "I Know What Boys Like."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW WHAT BOYS LIKE")

THE WAITRESSES: (Singing) I know what boys like. Boys like, boys like me.

URICKY: Around mid-November of that year, Butler phoned his girlfriend from the road.

BUTLER: And said hi, just checking in. And she said, oh, you are all over the radio. And I go, oh, great, you know, nine months of flogging "I Know What Boys Like." Finally it cracked a college radio ghetto and has hit, you know, mainstream radio. And she goes, no, no, it's your Christmas song... That?

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WAITRESSES SONG, "CHRISTMAS WRAPPING")

URICKY: The Waitresses had to relearn the song so they could add it to their set list.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WAITRESSES SONG, "CHRISTMAS WRAPPING")

URICKY: That was some work for lead singer Patty Donahue, who had to memorize almost 500 words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS WRAPPING")

THE WAITRESSES: (Singing) Bah humbug - no, that's too strong 'cause it is my favorite holiday. But all this year's been a busy blur, don't think I have the energy to add to my already mad rush just 'cause it's 'tis the season. The perfect gift for me would be completions and connections left from last year.

URICKY: The song's title, "Christmas Wrapping," spelled with a W, was a spoof on Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'" that came out a year earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS RAPPIN'")

KURTIS BLOW: (Singing) Now I'm the guy named Kurtis Blow, and Christmas is one thing I know. So every year just about this time, I celebrate it with a rhyme.

URICKY: Chris Butler's song is a short story about a woman who just wants to spend the holiday alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS WRAPPING")

THE WAITRESSES: (Singing) So deck those halls; trim those trees. Raise up cups of Christmas cheer. I just need to catch my breath, Christmas by myself this year.

URICKY: "Christmas Wrapping" sold especially well in the U.K. And in 1998, the song got a big boost when the Spice Girls recorded a version. It's been covered by the children's group Kidz Bop and performed on the TV show "Glee." It's also on one of the top iTunes albums this month in the U.K.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS WRAPPING")

THE WAITRESSES: (Singing) Merry Christmas, merry Christmas, but I think I'll miss this one this year. Merry Christmas, merry Christmas, but I think I'll miss this one this year.

URICKY: John Goehrke of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says around three-quarters of its inductees have made a Christmas record. Goehrke says Christmas songs can have a lasting impact, no matter how silly.

JOHN GOEHRKE: If you were 6 years old and the first record you got was The Chipmunks Christmas album, I guarantee if you heard it today, no matter how old you are, it would actually hold a special place in your heart.

URICKY: And they continue to sell year after year, says Goehrke, in window of only about six weeks around the holidays.

GOEHRKE: Five of the top 20 all-time best-selling singles are Christmas records. Mariah Carey, "All I Want For Christmas Is You" from '94, that has sold more copies than "I Want To Hold Your Hand" by The Beatles.

URICKY: For his part, Chris Butler says he certainly can't live off of his song, "Christmas Wrapping." But he does get a nice little annuity from the seasonal hit.

BUTLER: The fact that you get one at all is a gift. And I think I'd rather have that on my tombstone than, he knew what boys like. (Laughter).

URICKY: But for a guy who never liked Christmas much, he sounds pretty sincere when he says it's not just about the money.

BUTLER: I will be in a grumpy mood around the 23 of December. And I'll be at the mall buying something. And that song will come over the radio. And it just smacks me on the side of the head. It says, lighten up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS WRAPPING")

THE WAITRESSES: (Singing) A&P has provided me with the world's smallest turkey, already in the oven nice and hot. Oh, damn. Guess what I forgot?

URICKY: For NPR News, I'm Mark Uricky in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS WRAPPING")

THE WAITRESSES: (Singing) That Christmas magic's brought this tale to a very happy ending. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.