The very, very first Christmas gifts, so the story goes, were gold, frankincense and myrrh. And they probably came in pretty fancy packages.
Since then, though, we've often been less creative when it comes to bundling up our gifts for presentation at holiday time. We'll grab a couple of armloads of wrapping paper and ribbon--making sure that it's red or green or, if we're feeling really wild, white--and head home and Scotch tape it together in the approximate shape of the gift underneath and hope the person we're giving it to will rip the stuff off quickly and get it over with.
But this year when we bear our gifts we can do it with more panache and confidence if we allow ourselves to visualize gift shapes other than rectangular, and if we take advantage of the often dazzling variety of wrapping and decorating materials available.
First, remember that the holiday palette has more than two colors. While red and green remain bestsellers, said Ann Thornton, the decorative packaging and seasonal items buyer for the Dallas-based Container Store chain, "white and gold are a stronger theme this year, and silver is creeping in a bit more."
Prints--often highly detailed ones--also are showing early popularity. "We have one design that I was not terribly sure about when I bought it," Thornton said, "but it seems to be doing quite well. It's a street scene imported from England. It looks like an English village and there's snow on the ground and Santa riding a bike and a red British telephone booth."
Paper like that tends to be pricey because it was reproduced from an artist's painting. Heavier paper stock and any type of foil wrap also cost more.
Familiar copyrighted characters that aren't necessarily known as holiday icons are showing up this year in the Hallmark Cards Inc. Christmas wrapping lineup. Barbie, Winnie the Pooh, and the Peanuts and Looney Tunes characters all are featured.
But do you really want to use the top-drawer paper to wrap that bowling ball? Just as important: How do you wrap a bowling ball without making it look like a big crinkly jawbreaker?
The answer is that you don't. You stick it in a bag and camouflage it like crazy. Or, in wrapping talk, you insert it in a tote and accessorize.
A "tote" is a reinforced decorative paper bag with handles. "They're really a great item for things that are odd shaped," Thornton said. "You don't have to deal with paper, or make exact corners, and you don't have to do a bow. You can use maybe two or three colors of tissue with it and coordinate the color of the tissue with the design on the bag. You can make it more special by using ribbons of different colors."
Just remember to put the gift in first, then pack the tissue around and above it to obscure the gift, said Christine O'Brien, Hallmark's gift wrap designer. Totes often are used as last-minute solutions, she said, and packers are often rushed.
Totes also are tough, Thornton said. The fact that they're reinforced and made from laminated paper makes them good candidates for recycling. "If you have a quality tote," she said, "you can certainly reuse it. They hold up quite well."
But what if you want to wrap, say, a chain saw? A chain saw in a tote? No, Thornton said, but a large gift bag, made expressly for large and unwieldy items, may be the answer. They have less structure than a tote, but are manufactured with decorative designs similar to gift wrap and come in sizes large enough to contain a 27-inch bicycle. She compared them to "a decorative Hefty bag."
The fun, however, is often in the details--the items that can be attached to the gift to give it personality. This can be Martha Stewart territory, but you don't necessarily have to make this stuff yourself.
Baskets and buckets, for instance, which are natural gift containers, can be dressed up with Mylar garland, Thornton said, as well as with commercially available package "tie ons": seasonal wood or resin figures that can be tied or taped to handles or box tops. Natural fiber ribbon, such as Jute or raffia, is also popular.
One wrapping material, wired ribbon, is making a bid to establish a kind of tradition of its own through sheer frequency of use. "It can be almost sculptural in the way it works. You can shape the tail of the ribbon, for instance," Thornton said. It's also good if you're shipping packages or traveling with them because if the ribbon gets crushed you can easily fluff it up.
Accessorizing a gift package doesn't have to mean a trip to the store, however. In his book "365 Ways to Prepare for Christmas" (Harper Paperbacks, 1996), David E. Monn suggests several homespun ideas:
* Wrap gifts in wallpaper remnants.
* Use decorated hatboxes for larger items.
* Wrap packages in map paper for travelers on your gift list.
* Go to a fabric or sewing supply store and get braids, cordings, tie-backs, fringes and tassels to use instead of ribbon.
* Use the front part of last year's Christmas cards as this year's gift tags.
Hallmark's O'Brien offered a few more tips: Try wrapping a box with two types of paper, one for the lid and one for the body. Make a "tower" of gifts and wrap them all together with two or three coordinating patterns of paper and complementary ribbons and bows. Use a beverage bag to wrap bottles and stuff the bag with colored and shredded tissue.
It might even work with gold, frankincense and myrrh.