'Crabs For Christmas': A Tuneful Baltimore Tradition (Really!)

Dec 24, 2014
Originally published on December 24, 2014 5:09 pm

Actor David DeBoy admits the name of his signature song, "Crabs for Christmas," carries a potentially unsavory whiff — but only outside of Baltimore, where crabs are a delicacy much the way of lobsters in Maine or crawfish in New Orleans. Back in 1981, DeBoy managed to get his novelty song on local radio, and was shocked when the single sold more than 10,000 copies that year.

"When the song was first released, I was performing it at events all by myself," he writes in an email. But the popularity of "Crabs for Christmas" led to other Baltimore-themed Christmas songs, then to albums and finally to a live show he performs with his backup singers, The Hons. Since 2008, their annual revue has sold out the upstairs cabaret at Germano's, a restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood. DeBoy says the original "Crabs for Christmas" still gets spun on a few local stations.

DeBoy's Baltimore Christmas songs revel in the city's distinctive regional accent and its kitschy, working-class sensibility, as immortalized by local filmmaker John Waters. (DeBoy played a lecherous doctor in Waters' 2004 movie, A Dirty Shame.) Throughout his cabaret show, DeBoy refers to beloved Baltimore basics — or if you will, cliches — such as beehive hairdos, sauerkraut and scrubbing marble stoops.

"You know, where we grew up, there [were] no ... marble stoop," observes audience member Mark Jascewsky rather wistfully. He's originally from Chicago and moved to the Baltimore area in 1989. "There were no hubcaps hanging in the tree. But [DeBoy's] lyrics portray such a vivid picture. You can imagine it very easily and it brings that part of Baltimore's history to your life."

In fact, DeBoy's songs have become part of Jascewsky's own family traditions. His three kids say they all particularly enjoy a number that ends with a cat being electrocuted. It's called "Aluminum Christmas Tree."

Another member of the audience, self-identified "Balti-moron" Dan White, appreciates the merry mingling of Christmas and regional nostalgia. "It's one of those kind of sentiments that can carry you throughout the whole year," he says.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Baltimore, it's "Crabs For Christmas." That could either be the dinner menu or a holiday show that's been performed in the city for nearly 20 years. NPR's Neda Ulaby checked out the latter and met the creator of the show.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There's an upstairs cabaret in Baltimore's Little Italy with warm orange walls and a shiny black grand piano and a chatty host in wire-rimmed glasses, David Deboy.

DAVID DEBOY: How may people here are from Baltimore? All right, well, welcome to Baltimore. We're going to sing a little song that I recorded 30 years ago.

ULABY: Deboy's wearing a Santa hat and a tie embroidered with crabs.

DEBOY: (Singing) I want crabs for Christmas. Only crabs will be...

ULABY: Like lobsters in Maine and crawfish in New Orleans, says DeBoy, crabs are a Baltimore delicacy.

DEBOY: It ain't that delicate. You slab them out on top of a piece of newspaper and you have at it with hammers.

ULABY: And it's not just crabs. Baltimore's also known for its kitschy, working-class sensibility, as immortalized in the films of John Waters. That explains DeBoy's backup singers, The Hons, resplendent in Christmas sweaters and towering beehives.

DEBOY: (Singing) My Christmas wish'll, my Christmas wish'll...

(WHISTLE)

THE HONS: What's that?

DEBOY: (Singing) Oh Hon, don't you know? That's my Christmas whistle.

ULABY: Deboy says it used to be easy to get novelty songs on local radio. This one somehow endured. A few local stations still spin "Crabs For Christmas," he says, in spite of a title possibly carrying a more unsavory interpretation.

DEBOY: I mean, outside of Baltimore, it takes on a whole new kind of connotation.

ULABY: The song led to another song that led to albums and then the live show. Deboy takes special pride in celebrating Baltimore's distinctive accent, which he's more than happy to demonstrate.

DEBOY: (Imitating Baltimore accent) You have to wash handsets. You have to put air in your tires. You have to walk along the pavement.

ULABY: As in his Baltimore version of "A Night Before Christmas."

DEBOY: Well, down on the pavement, there arose such a ruckus. I sprang from the bathroom and I fell and I fell right on my tuckus. I went to the window and the noise did increase and looked out to see if I should call the police.

ULABY: As an actor, Deboy has appeared on the Baltimore TV show "The Wire," and pretty much every movie or show filmed in the city - "Veep," "House Of Cards," "Homicide: Life On The Street," and of course, a movie by his friend, John Waters. The two share a regional subversive streak that you can hear in this cabaret song about wreaking revenge on the guy who invented Christmas lights.

DEBOY: (Singing) Spending Saturday inside and taking a snooze. I'm up here with the lights and we both blown our fuse. I'd like to dismember...

THE HONS: (Singing) I'd like to dismember...

DEBOY: (Singing) ...The son of a...

THE HONS: Hey.

DEBOY: Oh, sorry. (Singing) Whoever invented Christmas lights. I'd pay somebody else to do it if I weren't so cheap.

THE HONS: (Singing) He's very cheap.

DEBOY: (Singing) They sell you all these lights that you can't repair. And then they go and tease you by including a spare.

ULABY: Over the years, DeBoy estimates his crabby Christmas albums have sold around 40,000 copies.

KATIE: My dad always makes us listen to it because he likes it a lot. And that makes us like it and now I do.

ULABY: This young victim of Baltimore-style Stockholm syndrome is 9-year-old Katie Jascewsky. Her dad's taken her and her siblings to this show twice.

MARK JASCEWSKY: It's almost like a tradition for us. And we always listen to the song when we're decorating our Christmas tree.

ULABY: Mark Jascewsky grew up in Chicago. But the "Crabs For Christmas" albums make him feel connected to Baltimore, particularly a tune called "Christmas On The Stoop."

DEBOY: (Singing) The sound of jingle bells is everywhere. The smell of sauerkraut is in the air. Mom's putting Holly in her beehive hair. It's Christmas on the stoop. Dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, crab dip.

JASCEWSKY: You know, where we grew up, there was no stoop, you know, there was no marble stoop. There were no hubcaps hanging in the tree, but his lyrics portray such a vivid picture, you can imagine it very easily. And it brings that part of Baltimore's history to your life.

DAN WHITE: I'm a native Balti-moron.

ULABY: Audience member Dan White appreciates the merry mingling of Christmas and regional nostalgia.

WHITE: It's one of those kind of sentiments that can carry you throughout the whole year.

ULABY: Maybe even if the Orioles and the Ravens manage to lose their momentum in 2015. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

DEBOY: (Singing) A little town of Baltimore, how still we see the light. On nights like this, I reminisce of Baltimore days gone by. For in my memory shine... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.