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Think Outside the Box: Unique Holiday Gift Packaging

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When I was little, Christmas at my house was about having cinnamon buns and bacon for breakfast, playing our favorite holiday records, and squealing with delight during gift exchanges. But the day had a dark underbelly as well: it was the stage for the annual battle my mother and I waged over all the wrapping paper that flew around our living room as we opened presents. As a lifelong pack rat, my mom insisted that we fold all the paper neatly, roll up the ribbon, and save everything for gift giving the following year. I, on the other hand, thought there was nothing more exhilarating than ripping the gift wrap to shreds and tossing every last piece into our roaring fire, making the flames rise higher and higher with each scrap I added. 


Gift packaging has come a long way since those days, though. If my mother had ever bought anything besides multipacks of thin paper imprinted with garish ornaments and poorly rendered Santas, I might have thought twice before torching it. If you love giving gifts, why not go the extra mile and get creative with the wrapping? By using repurposed knickknacks, alternate forms of paper, and custom containers, you’ll ensure that the exteriors of your presents are as memorable as the treats they conceal, and no one will dare throw them away. The recipients—not to mention the trees—will be duly impressed.


Paper Is a Many-Splendored Thing
If you can afford to wrap all your gifts in those thick, elegant single sheets of paper that upscale gift shops sell, good for you (and please send me some of your money). But people who are relegated to the jumbo rolls at Target know that the corners of most boxes tear right through that kind of wrapping—and who wants to spend the holiday season doing Scotch tape patch jobs? Instead, try these innovative paper sources to brighten up gifts (and unleash your literary side). 


  • On a large sheet of paper, with the copier set to the highest magnification, photocopy a dictionary page featuring a word that hints at the gift you’re wrapping or the holiday you’re celebrating. 


  • If you’re giving a romantic gift, package it in a page from a book of love poems, enlarged using the above technique. 


  • Wrap a travel-related gift in an old map from the recipient’s destination. 


  • Festoon humorous presents with the funny pages from your local newspaper; add extra pages underneath to make the wrapping more durable and prevent transparency. 


  • Use vintage calendar pages with the date of the holiday circled. 


  • Buy rubber letter stamps with your loved ones’ first initials on them, as well as multicolored ink pads. Wrap gifts in plain white paper, then stamp them all over with the recipients’ initials. (This technique is especially handy for large households trying to keep track of who gets what.) 


Boxed In
Anyone who’s wrapped a lumpy stuffed animal or a set of measuring cups knows how challenging it is to package unboxed gifts prettily. However, a few minutes of brainstorming paperless ways to deliver the goods can solve this dilemma. Here’s a hint: practice “category wrapping” by allowing the type of present to dictate its container. 


  • If your mother has a green thumb, give her a new pair of gardening gloves, a trowel, and some seed packets in a glazed flowerpot. 


  • If your husband spends more time at Home Depot than he does in his own home, give him a gift certificate from there or a new set of tools in an empty paint can covered with shiny paper. 


  • For film fanatics, stuff a striped popcorn container with colorful tissue paper and fill it with DVDs or gift certificates to your local movie theater. 


If you often give small clothing items (such as T-shirts and scarves) as gifts, make a point of saving paper towel rolls and round shipping containers. Roll up these items neatly and insert them into the reserved tubes. (To create extra space, cut two paper towel rolls vertically and tape them back together as a single cylinder.) Cover the tube with wrapping paper or tissue, leaving extra on each end, and tie off the ends with curling ribbon—the result is a festive piece of “candy” that’s as pleasing as its contents. For Christmas gifts, enclose the cylinder in white paper, then wrap red ribbon around its entire length to create candy cane stripes. 




Detail Decorating
In the same way a dazzling necklace dresses up even the simplest T-shirt, distinctive accessories can transform ho-hum gift packaging into a keepsake that packs a punch. As with all cases involving accent pieces, however, allow these details to shine by keeping the background simple. 


  • Instead of using ribbon for children’s presents, tie them with a jump rope, colorful mittens, or a fun pair of shoelaces. 


  • Recycle your favorite holiday greeting cards or photographs by sticking them to the tops of boxes with double-sided tape. 


  • Wrap a toy-size version of a larger gift (say, a bicycle) in a treasure map directing the recipient to the real thing. 


  • Using hot glue, attach the bases of multicolored Christmas lightbulbs to each other in a star shape, then affix the ornament to a ribbon with double-sided tape and tie it around the gift box. 


  • Spice up glossy red or green wrapping paper with cinnamon sticks, a holly sprig, or a cutting from a real pine bough; secure it with a gold ribbon. 


  • If you really want to push the limits of craftiness, use the tops of flat boxes to create miniature tableaux or landscapes with human or animal figurines, toy cars or trains, and tiny trees or flowers from an art-supply store. 


Let’s Wrap It Up
Black stallions and painted ponies may not be the most popular presents these days, but the expression “Never look a gift horse in the mouth” still has cultural currency—it’s a timeless reminder that we should always be grateful for others’ generosity. Nevertheless, when you’ve expended significant time, energy, and sometimes money to find an exceptional token for someone you love, a careless packaging job can undermine your thoughtfulness. Rather than rushing through this process each holiday season, make it one of the focal points of your festivities by designing decorating schemes that reflect not only your aesthetic abilities but also your lucky beneficiaries’ personal tastes. You never know where your imagination might lead you when you begin to treat gift wrapping as a creative outlet. In fact, you may get so good at it that you can start handing people empty boxes—they’ll be so entranced by your artistry that they won’t even think to look inside.


Updated December 10, 2010

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