Wrapping Presents With Christmas Memories

The day of the botchy-looking Christmas package is long gone, and the sculpted corner is here to stay, along with the curled ribbon and satin bow.

Things were different when I was a child. My mother saved Christmas wrappings from year to year; nothing was discarded.

After the flurry and cry of gift-opening was over on Christmas morning, and everyone had gone into the kitchen for breakfast, Mama sneaked back and picked up all the papers, smoothing them out and folding them carefully. Then she started on the red and green string. This she placed in a box, along with a few unused stickers and cards, and put them all away for next year.

Nobody loved Christmas as much as Mama did. As soon as the carol-singing started on the radio, Mama sat and turned the dial to be sure she didn't miss any music or recitation connected with the season.

When the Christmas trees appeared on the sidewalks outside the grocery stores along the avenue, Mama made it her business to be out on the street, boldly stooping to pick up those branches that had been broken off when the trees were unloaded.

She lugged these home and hung them all over the house.

When I was a child, this picking-up used to embarrass me dreadfully, since the storekeepers watched her with suspicion, as well they might. Sometimes, if a branch hadn't quite come loose but had obviously broken, Mama would help matters along a little.

The sidewalks were always covered with slush, the street thronged with shoppers, and people turned to watch her triumphant progress up the street, arms bristling with pine branches.

But on Christmas Eve, when package-wrapping took place, Mama was in her greatest glory.

Out came the box of used paper and cards, augmented by perhaps a single package of fresh cards.

By the time she finished wrapping her packages, the floor around the tree was something to behold.

Mama believed in lots of packages. To this end, she not only bought numerous small gifts for everyone, in addition to the main present, but she divided each separable gift in two, to make a greater display. A pair of house slippers was wrapped in two separate boxes.

After the recipient had opened one package and found one slipper, he knew, of course, that the other package contained its mate, but this only enhanced the fun.

Even as a child, confronted on Christmas mornings by the enormous tree and oodles of odd-shaped packages, I found something very familiar about the red and green wrappings. The same ones turned up year after year.

Our Christmas paper had been used so many times on packages of various sizes that the old creases from previous years were easily visible. The string was old, too, and often pieced together to tie a large package, with knots in odd places.

During my teens, I one day confessed this shameful economy to a friend, who reassured me by saying that his mother did the same thing. In fact, she was so eager to rescue the wrappings that she practically snatched them out of people's hands as they came off the packages. After that I felt better.

Christmas isn't quite the same now. All the wrappings are new and fresh, and all the tags and cards pristine. Not one has the slightly yellowed look of having been saved from last Christmas.

Wrapping paper is more and more beautiful - gold, silver, purple - and all the ribbons are becoming richer, shinier, broader.

Greater yardage is being used in the bows, along with bells, angels, and pine cones. Few packages have the skinny red and green cord we used, and yet the new stuff hardly seems worth saving.

Anyway, today's professional wrapping jobs are done in the stores with cellulose tape, which makes it difficult to get the paper off without tearing it beyond the hope of reuse, especially when you're eager to get at the contents. Mama would have hated it. Today, we gather up the whole mess as soon as the packages are opened and throw it all away.

Except, naturally, for a few of the choicest bows and pieces of paper. I have a box filled with papers, bows, and ribbons that I have sneaked back and rescued, and which I save from Christmas to Christmas.

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