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a grean background with a red present with a big x over it
Down with store bought wrapping paper! (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyDecember 14, 2023

Hear me out: Don’t wrap your Christmas presents

a grean background with a red present with a big x over it
Down with store bought wrapping paper! (Image: Tina Tiller)

Wrapping paper grinch Shanti Mathias makes the argument for not wasting your one wild and precious life concealing gifts with tree carcasses.  

I lived with someone once who was very good at wrapping presents. She was meticulous about it. She would cut out the shape relative to the object, tuck the ends in, maybe tie it up with a ribbon. It was amazing to watch, partially because it was the kind of skill that I had previously thought belonged only to retail workers who had graduated from the Association of Advanced Gift Wrapping.

Watching my flatmate seal her gifts, I felt a kind of envy, but also a tidy realisation. Some people actually like wrapping presents. They do not consider wrapping paper inherently futile. I am not bad at wrapping presents, but whenever I do it, I am filled with annoyance. Why cover an object with paper only for it to be wrenched off again? 

But it’s about anticipation, you say. It’s about looking at something and experiencing the mystery of not quite having it yet even though it is before you: the thing that is real now, but not yet revealed to us fully. Maybe you can turn wrapping paper into a story about how Jesus looked like a person, but was actually God on the inside and that colourful exteriors actually remind us about the reason for the season. Good work paying attention in Sunday School, but wrapping paper is still inherently pointless. 

a red background with hhands holding a wrapped present
Is this how you want to spend your short life? wrapping objects just so they can be unwrapped again? Getty Images

What does wrapping paper do? It conceals the object so it can be revealed again at the right time. Wrapping paper is opaque and beautifying. It is a disguise; it makes the object within not into something else, but into latent possibility. It pretends that the object does not exist until it is received by its intended person. It is healthy to have encounters with the unknown in your everyday life, but consider the resources of soil and sunshine, chemicals and electricity, petrol and water and most of all human labour that it takes to wrap presents in purpose-made dead tree pulp. 

There are other ways to achieve gift concealment without buying a roll of wrapping paper wrapped in plastic to unwrap and then rewrap presents. To start with the obvious ones: reuse wrapping paper you’ve already been given and saved because you came from a reusing wrapping paper household. Or those brown paper bags from the supermarket. Newspapers work, too, and also gives your recipient a reminder of how useful news is, in multiple senses. You could paint or decorate these items, and a thousand homeschooling parents have probably written blogs on this very topic, but since they’re destined for the bin either way, why waste your time? 

If you’re interested in something more elaborate and actually reusable, why not wrap your presents with fabric? If it were up to me, I would probably just tie a jumper in a lump around the object I am presenting, but this can be annoying if it is your favourite jumper and you are concerned the gift recipient won’t give it back. Perhaps there is someone in your life with a collection of scarfs from the innocent days when they thought they were a scarf person and hadn’t realised that wearing scarves oppresses the neck and makes them look like an abandoned scarecrow, and that person could give you some of their scarves to conceal your gifts with, the only caveat being that they would like them back as a reminder that they are a person who is capable of changing over time. There’s some art of cloth tying that somehow makes a cornerstone of every human culture (covering bodies or other things with strips of flexible material) extremely elaborate, and you might have an ex with too many hobbies who would like to tell you about how to do this. It’s nice that fabric can be reused, but again I say: why bother? 

wiman wrapping christmas presents
A tree had to grow that paper! energy and time had to be used to make it! And for what? (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s impossible to start thinking about the scourge of wrapping paper without thinking about the system of gifts themselves. Don’t get me wrong: I love giving presents, and I love receiving them too. It is deeply lovely to have a physical object as a representation of someone’s thought and care about you, even if it was not the exact thing you thought you wanted. While wrapping paper might turn a real thing into a waiting possibility, the truth is that these objects are still real, produced in a world of widening inequality and environmental degradation. Well-off New Zealanders give and are given more things than we need, while many go without. Wrapping objects, kilometres and kilos of paper and sticky tape that is rubbish even when you buy it, is a particularly stark reminder of this. 

So I have another suggestion: if you want to achieve the effect of both decorating and concealing an object, don’t wrap it in anything at all. Instead, reckon with it as a real, physical thing. Our houses are full of opaque surfaces ideal for concealment, like walls and doors. Live with the object you are giving for a while, but not so long that you start to want to keep it. When the time comes to give it, retrieve it from where it has been hidden and place it behind your back. Walk towards the person receiving the gift; if you want to add some drama, you can ask them to pick a hand. At the moment when they are ready, take the object from behind your back and present the present in the present. You are yourself opaque (hopefully). You are yourself decorative, and much more unique than mass-produced wrapping. There’s no need to have paper involved at all. 

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