I was lucky enough to hear The Waitresses’ memorable song Christmas Wrapping in 1981, the year it came out. It was the standout track on a wonderful if oddball collection of New York underground acts, Ze Records’ A Christmas Album. Amidst the record’s frantic disco, wacko funk, and gloomy dirges nestled this perfect little pop gem, which told a charming and cohesive story. As we’ll see, the narrative actually anticipates the female-led cycle of romantic-comedy films that would emerge throughout the 1980s.
Christmas Wrapping is the tale of a busy Manhattan woman who’s too caught up in her career to pursue romance. The story is told on a snowy Christmas Eve as she reflects on her rotten romantic luck throughout 1981. She had actually met a decent guy, a fellow New Yorker, a year ago on a skiing vacation. Every few months they’d talk or meet up, but their dates always seemed to go awry. Being Christmas Eve, she’s skipping the parties in favor of some personal quiet time and turkey dinner for one. Realizing she’s forgotten cranberries, she tromps through the snow to a market, where she sees her Mr. Right—also buying cranberries! They both laugh; presumably the evening (and romance) ends well.
Chris Butler’s exquisitely crafted lyrics are very visual in nature. The stream of noun phrases and sentence fragments suggest the rapid-fire editing of images in a film: “calendar picture, frozen landscape”; “a few cards, a few calls”; “on with the boots, back out in the snow.” In Kylie Minogue’s 2015 cover version, singer Iggy Pop plays the male lead, speaking that character’s few lines (“what a break, this year’s been crazy”). Hearing this, I realized that the song was a musical version of a rom-com film, a romantic comedy story seen through a woman’s eyes.
The romantic-comedy genre is defined as “a funny movie, play, or television program about a love story that ends happily,” with “a love plot in which two sympathetic and well-matched lovers are united or reconciled.” Famous early examples include It Happened One Night (1934) and The Shop Around The Corner (1940). But nearly all examples through the 1970s had male protagonists.
What sets the song apart from its filmic predecessors is its female protagonist and narrator. Had there been any female-driven rom-coms prior to the song’s 1981 release? (Likely there were a few that emerged from the “woman’s film” trend of the 1940s.)
As far as I can tell, the modern female-led rom-com film cycle didn’t really start until 1984. In John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (and in 1986’s Pretty in Pink), Molly Ringwald plays a misfit high-school girl longing for a hunky guy somewhat out of her league. (This coming-of-age plot was borrowed for 1987’s Dirty Dancing.) 1984-85 brought Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, with Kathleen Turner as a prim novelist drawn into adventure by a lusty male explorer. In 1986 Turner also played a grown woman transported to her high-school years in Peggy Sue Got Married. 1987 brought Cher’s memorable turn in Moonstruck as a Brooklyn widow who falls for her fiancé’s brother; the same year gave us Diane Keaton as a businesswoman who inherits an infant in Baby Boom. The Eighties conclude with 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as a man and woman attempting to stay platonic (you know how that goes). (Other examples from the decade include the amnesia tale Overboard and upward-mobility saga Working Girl.)
In all of these a woman is drawn via romance—by accident or by design—out of her mundane reality into a happier, better world. Christmas Wrapping’s plot—a New York woman too caught up in her career to pursue love until fate intervenes—fits in perfectly with these stories. Given that, I’m surprised the song has never been optioned for a film plot. (The closest film version would probably be 2001’s Serendipity, in which a romantically-inclined duo keeps bumping into one another; it’s also partially holiday-set.) Regardless, the Waitresses’ holiday classic unwittingly kicked off an enduring and mighty entertaining movie genre all its own. And while we await the official film of Christmas Wrapping someday, there’s always this sweet cinematic fable of a working woman seeking love over the holidays.
The Waitresses’ Chris Butler tells the story behind the iconic song: