After her husband opened an environmentally friendly restaurant last year in Boston, Heather Lionette began thinking about ways to help the environment at home. With the holiday season in full swing, Ms. Lionette recalled the huge number of garbage bags that pile up along her street during the holidays, filled with mounds of wrapping paper, ribbon, boxes, and cards.
This year, many green folk will opt for alternatives to wrapping paper, such as reusable fabric covers or old newspapers. A smaller number, including Lionette, are taking this waste-reducing idea a step further: They're not wrapping gifts at all.
"Between opening the restaurant and Al Gore's movie," Lionette says, "in the past year or so I've really been thinking more about how to cut waste out of my life. When I started to think about it, wrapping paper is such a waste and doesn't really serve an important purpose."
While environmentalists say eliminating wrapping paper foreshadows Christmases to come, others wonder if these eco-Scrooges are cutting back on important holiday decorum.
Americans generate 25 percent more trash than normal between Thanksgiving and Christmas, says Jennifer Hattam of the Sierra Club. Although there's no way to know how much of that excess is related to gift wrapping, she suspects that a lot of it is.
Even if it eliminates a few trash-filled garbage bags, it's not worth it if it ruins the spirit of Christmas, says Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of famed etiquette guru Emily Post.
"We need to respect this tradition," she says. "Christmas isn't just about the presents on that one day; it's about the anticipation and sense of momentum. People don't know what they're getting for a reason: It creates a special moment between the giver and receiver. If the gift is sitting right out there, then there's no 'moment.' "
But her argument doesn't ring true for Bob Lilienfeld, author of "Use Less Stuff." "Wrapping paper for the typical child is just an impediment to getting what is underneath," he says. "There's no need for fancy bows and expensive paper for kids."
Even for adults, the packaging is not as important as the present, he says. "We're not in Japan, where what the gift comes in is as important as what's underneath. The only exception here is the Tiffany's box, I guess," he muses.
If the objective of wrapping paper is to create excitement, Mr. Lilienfeld says, why not hide the presents around the house or, for those living in a warm climate, outside?
That's exactly what Lindsay Randall, an environmental sustainability expert at Purchase College in New York plans to do with her 3- and 5-year-old nephews this year.
"They're used to hunting for things at Easter. Plus, they're so young they don't know that wrapping paper is a big tradition, so it's easier for change to come about," she says.
Ms. Randall thinks this year is the start of the green Christmas. "With more kids growing up without gift wrap, not wrapping gifts might become the tradition in the future."
Lionette's not sure yet if she will just put the presents under the tree or try to keep a little surprise alive by creating a scavenger hunt for her 3-year-old son. But she's not worried he will feel that he's missing out. The experience can even contribute to his fledgling environmentalism, she says.
And it's not just the kids who can learn something from giving gifts au naturel. Lionette says she's received positive reactions from everyone she's told about her plan, and now her friends are seriously considering it. "They say, 'I haven't really thought about [wrapping paper] before, but it is really wasteful,' " she says.
Ms. Post, on the other hand, says there are ways to compromise between extravagant wrapping and abandoning the tradition altogether.
"I'm a huge fan of people's efforts to help the environment," she says. "You can buy gift wrap from UNICEF or other charities made from recycled paper."
Lilienfeld says a lot of people are switching to reusable ideas, like putting presents in gift bags or dish towels, or replacing bows with natural accents, like pine cones.
Alternative wrapping ideas can be part of the gift itself and shows more thoughtfulness than generic paper, says the Sierra Club's Ms. Hattam. For example, for a friend who likes to travel, she'll wrap a vacation guide in an old road map she has lying around.
The whole issue of how to decorate gifts is only an issue if the presents are things, as opposed to giving experiences, says Colin Beavan. He's the No-Impact Man, made famous for his family's ecolifestyle in New York City without electricity, elevators, or toilet paper. "For gifts this year, we're giving experiences that we'll do together rather than things, which means no wrapping paper is necessary," he says. "Plus, spending more time together makes us happier as a family."
Lionette's not ready to dispense with gifts altogether, but likes the idea of at least putting a small dent in her family's seasonal rubbish pile. She says, "It's a small step, but it makes you stop and think about the consequences of overusing paper and all the stuff we throw away this time of year.