Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wrapping Christmas Presents

Wrapping Christmas Presents

I absolutely love wrapping Christmas presents.  Doesn’t matter what the present is:  could be a deck of cards or a cashmere sweater.  Doesn’t matter who the giftee is:  could be my beloved daughter or the anonymous mail carrier.  All I need is to have beautiful and/or whimsical and/or recycled papers, gorgeous ribbons (or at least lots and lots of cheap ribbon in every conceivable holiday color, and/or yarn and twine), tons of Scotch tape, decent scissors, and stick-on gift tags (I used to make them individually out of the paper in which I’d wrapped a present, but that quickly became not-fun . . . also hard to tell which present was destined for whom, as these sorts of tags are inherently self-camouflaging).  Plus gifts to wrap.  Plus time to do so. 

Not surprisingly, I come from a family of gift-wrapping enthusiasts.  Until arthritis made the activity difficult, my mother wrapped elegant presents.  She favored monochromatic papers and elaborate bows; she’d experiment with color-on-color presentations (as in red bow on red paper) or unusual color combinations (as in green paper with a purple and silver bow).  She’d turn the rough edges of paper so all folds were plumb and didn’t show an ugly white underside.  She’d arrange presents under the tree carefully, with attention to size, hue, and sheen.

My father, on the other hand, was a devotee of quirky, exuberant (aka slapdash) wrapping.  He’d use whatever paper was near at hand, for example, and embellish it with a gold-ribbon initial indicating its recipient (easy enough in our family, as we all had different initials) or a pasted-on Christmas tree cut from a last-year’s holiday card.  Plus glue and sequins.  Plus tie-ons:  for a few years, he always ordered one (least expensive possible) thing for Mom from Neiman Marcus, specifying store gift wrap, because those wrapped gifts would come festooned with a gaudy ornament, which after Christmas would go into the wrappings box to be used again and again and again.  I remember one such tie-on – a large Styrofoam and glitter ‘NOEL’ – that we attached to packages for decades until it literally fell apart and was reluctantly decommissioned. 

Growing up, my sister and I were at a distinct disadvantage in the family gift-wrapping frenzy.  The reason:  we didn’t have much money to buy presents, so we’d only have a handful to wrap.  Our parents, though, believed that having a bunch of gifts under the tree was a non-negotiable for the season – my mother for aesthetic reasons (the tree would look ugly without them) and my father for the-more-the-merrier-and-more-fun-on-Christmas-day reasons.  Therefore, they were both quite creative in multiplying presents-to-wrap-and-display in ways that our very modest family budget could accommodate.

--Wrapping paperback books they’d already read and thought someone else might like.
--Wrapping things in a set (like three graduated mixing bowls) separately.
--Wrapping things deceptively (like wrapping one new golf ball [from Mom to Dad] in a large be-bowed box).
--Wrapping promises (‘I promise to take out the garbage every week’;  ‘I promise not to nag you about taking out the garbage’) . . . this maneuver entails writing out the promise, putting it in some sort of box, then:  wrapaganza!
--Wrapping last-minute cheap junk (like a dollar jig-saw puzzle or a Pez candy dispenser or a guilty-pleasure National Enquirer, all of which my dad would score from a night-before-Christmas run to Walgreen’s) in manners suitable for inclusion in the under-tree pile.
--Wrapping presents in newspaper or semi-de-creased used aluminum foil when we were out of ‘real’ Christmas paper.

Perhaps my strongest wrapping memory was generated when I was a young married adult and my sister was a young affianced adult.  On Christmas Eve we all gathered at my parents’ house, some of us just having arrived . . . with (oh, the horror!) unwrapped presents.  After dinner, my dad decided we should have a wrapping contest.  While my sister and I (Mom had finished her wrapping – beautifully, as always) labored over making pretty presents, our husbands/fiancés/fathers got into a guy thing of constructing Dr. Seuss/Dr. Freud towers of ribbon-festooned wrapping-paper tubes to affix to the presents proper.  The winner, as I recall, was my sister’s fiancée, as his creation was about five feet tall.  He was studying to be a psychologist, so go figure.

A wrapping temptation happened when I lived in Okinawa as a military wife.  We visited another couple (a few years older) during the holidays:  their tree and the gifts underneath were all done up in red and white.  Mrs. Captain was an excellent artist and a cool person – she explained that she re-wrapped gifts sent from state-side in glossy white paper and red bows in order to (1) reflect her family’s Swedish heritage and (2) to look nice.  As I’d just turned twenty-one, I was impressed . . . and thought I might emulate (perhaps in different colors) Mrs. Captain’s holiday artistry.  Then we received a Christmas box from home – gifts wrapped in my mom’s lovely manner and in my dad’s distinctive sang-froid aesthetic.  Re-wrap those presents?  No way.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed wrapping gifts with my daughter, wrapping gifts with my parents, wrapping gifts for my parents (when for different reasons, they were unable to wrap gifts themselves, but it was always a collaboration – I’d drag out paper rolls and ribbons and ask them which they’d think would be good for that particular gift and that particular recipient), and . . . just wrapping gifts by myself. 

This final wrapping scenario is the most difficult.  How to keep the fun and creativity alive when you have neither wrapping allies nor an immediate wrapping audience?  For me, it’s a three-fold process. 

First, have materials that inspire/satisfy you.  I like to have on hand solid papers in red, green, gold, silver, and blue.  Plus complementary ribbons – I need old-fashioned curling ribbon in all colors, plus sateen ribbons and bows, plus my new favorite – wired ribbon (more expensive, but reusable for years and years).  It’s nice to have gift-able tie-ons, like small ornaments or candy canes or jingle bells or wine charms or a wire whisk.  Then there should be some patterned papers (I’m partial to snowflakes, polka dots, and Christmas trees) for variety.

Second, keep the recipient in mind.  For instance, one of my nephews really likes the color blue; my daughter enjoys snow scenes; a good friend is more of a gold/brass accent person than a silver accent person; a young relative adores penguins.  Thinking of the gift-getter’s tastes as you select papers and embellishments makes wrapping less a job than an interaction (a virtual one, to be sure, but one that can be emotionally satisfying). 

Third, try something new (on at least one present).  Origami animals or flowers instead of bows.  Out-of-date road maps repurposed into colorfully snazzy retro gift wrap.  Tie-ons of real balsam, holly, and mistletoe (or cinnamon sticks, clove and tangerine pomanders, and sage sprigs) rather than the plastic variety.  Clue tags (using the clues you provide on a [very big] gift tag, recipients must guess what’s in the packages before they can open them). Wrapping presents in fabric rather than paper. 

Gift-wrapping can be like performance art:  something you do with an aesthetic purpose, with a recognition that such gestures are ultimately transient and all the more magical because of their ephemeral nature – that wrapping Christmas presents thoughtfully for people you care about is a creative expression of love.  It can also be a way of continuing family traditions, or at least of commemorating and perpetuating family holiday memories.

Wrap on, friends.  Happy Holidays!


  1. This is probably my favorite blog post of yours so far. I can attest to Aunt Deb's magnificent wrapping skills!

    1. Yo favorite nephew who likes blue. Seems as if we're both in the Christmas spirit -- loved the pictures of your holiday blinged-out house.

    2. Unless this comment is from my favorite nephew who used to love otters. The picture is so tiny I'm not absolutely sure. Love you both!

    3. Coneball....well, that is a mysterious moniker! Yes, Aunt Deb is one terrific (w)rapper, coming from a long family history of Christmas Nazis. I believe that you, Coneball, are also infused with the family Xmas bug!
      Our first twinkle lights and ornaments went up last night, so we are finally in the game!! Merry, merry!

  2. I remember the fun of unwrapping presents at one of Deb's Christmas parties for grad students in the early 90s. The presents looked so good, I wanted to unwrap more of them. I was restrained from doing this, ha ha. That night, I went home one Ziggy Marley CD richer. Thanks Deb for the memorable parties you hosted.

  3. Hey Jill--

    Those were fun times! I think you scored one of the better presents, as many were of the dollar store variety. Wrapping will do wonders. Merry Christmas!