Christmas Wrapping: The Waitresses on how they made a festive classic

‘Lighten up!’ … the Waitresses with Butler on left and Wormworth right.
‘Lighten up!’ … the Waitresses with Butler on left and Wormworth right. Photograph: Paul Natkin/Getty Images
‘Lighten up!’ … the Waitresses with Butler on left and Wormworth right. Photograph: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

‘I hated Christmas. I always had to work when everyone was having an eggnog. So I poured my sourness into this song’

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Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 13.42 EST

Chris Butler, songwriter, guitarist

We were signed to Ze Records but they had other priorities. We were on the road trying to push I Know What Boys Like, a single that was in limbo because Ze couldn’t distribute it. Then they asked us for a Christmas record. I thought: “You have Alan Vega and Lydia Lunch on your label – not festive nonsense!” I hoped they would forget the idea, but they didn’t.

I was such a Scrooge. I hated Christmas! Also, I worked as a freelance journalist. In December in New York, everyone with a job takes a long holiday, so I’d get offered work I was too poor to turn down. I’d have all this stuff to do when everyone else was having their eggnog. And I poured my sourness into this song. The first words I wrote down were: “Bah humbug.” The chorus went: “Merry Christmas. But I think I’ll miss this one this year.” It’s about two people alone at Christmas who meet while buying cranberry sauce, and get together. Of course, it had to have a happy ending – it’s Christmas! – but it was tongue in cheek.

I finished the lyrics in the taxi on the way to the Electric Lady studios to record it. “A&P,” I wrote, “has provided me / With the world’s smallest turkey.” A&P were a downmarket US supermarket chain. When the Spice Girls covered the song, they changed it to Tesco. The title is a nod to Kurtis Blow, who’d just done Christmas Rappin’. Rap was the emerging sound of New York and it definitely influenced us. I got the jazzy melody on an acoustic guitar and Tracy ran with it brilliantly on bass. I crammed so many words in that, for the last verse, singer Patty Donahue couldn’t get her breath, so we had to put a break in. She was a trouper.

We gave it our all, then we forgot about it and went back on the road. We were in Rochester, New York, a few months later when I called home and my girlfriend said: “You’re all over the radio!” I thought I Know What Boys Like had finally made it. She said: “No, no. It’s the Christmas song!” We put it in the repertoire that night.

I still get grumpy at Christmas. Every year, when I get stuck in traffic because of idiots buying crap for their unloved in-laws, that song always seems to come on the radio. And then I think: “Lighten up, man, it’s Christmas.”

Tracy Wormworth, bass, backing vocals

I was playing with an all-female funk band and working a nine-to-five job at ABC news. I got so obsessed with my bass, I started bringing it into work and practising at lunchtimes, as well as rehearsing until late each night. It took me two hours to get to work in Manhattan every day, and I kept being late, so I quit. I was walking round the neighbourhood nearby with my bass on my back and this guy stopped me and said: “I know a guy who’s looking for a female bass player.” That’s how I joined the Waitresses.

I remember thinking one really hot day: “We’re recording a Christmas song in August? OK!” At the time, Good Times by Chic was out and, for bass players, Bernard Edwards’ badass bassline was iconic. I wasn’t trying to rip it off, but I was heavily inspired by it. I sat in the studio and worked out note for note what I would play. Like the band, the song is a real mix. We’d been part of the CBGBs scene that spawned Talking Heads and Ramones. Our drummer Billy Ficca had been in Television. Mars Williams [saxophone] came from the New York free jazz scene and was a big character, who sometimes brought a didgeridoo on stage. He plays the sax on the chorus really straight, but then in the solo at the end just really goes for it: free jazz mayhem.

I had no idea how catchy the song would prove to be. It would trip me out if I walked into a chain store and it was playing. I used to say: “Oh, that’s me!” I’m proud of Christmas Wrapping but I don’t do that any more.

• Each winter, Chris Butler makes a donation to the Akron-Summit County children’s library in the name of the first person to tell him they heard Christmas Wrapping on the radio in the festive season. Tracy Wormworth now plays with the B-52s.

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