Growing up, we always had an angel on top of the tree, one my mother made just before I was born. After I was married, we experimented with a star, but I never really liked covering up the top of the tree. Now we have a triptych of jolly gentlemen who perch in the top crook of the tree. And this year, a little something more…
You can tell where my heart is this Christmas. Inside a nice pair of waterproof boots.
(Because part 2 always comes before part 1.)
Last year, I called an end to wrapping paper once and for all, at least in my wrapping. Wrapping paper is the ultimate in consumerism. You buy it, then rip it off and immediately discard it in favor of whatever is inside. (Unless you’re under 3, a furry animal, or both.)
Disturbingly, wrapping paper and bags account for 4 million tons of trash annually (source). On the upside, we don’t have to do it. According to the same source, “If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.” Let’s be those people, okay?
Needless to say, this waste sits very poorly with the sustainability I want for my lifestyle. I’m not giving up hot showers just yet, but I really can’t say that my failure to buy rolls of garishly printed shiny paper has caused me much suffering, or even any loss of festive-ness in our Christmas season.
This is partly because my conception of Christmas decorating has always tended away from the plastic and mass-produced and toward the textures and traditions that have been used for centuries–wood and glass, homespun, brown paper and string, interspersed with green boughs, holly and berries. (See, for example, my Christmas pinterest board.)
Some minimalists forego presents altogether, but we’re not quite there yet. I love giving and receiving presents. Small presents, big presents, presents that climb on rocks… Sometimes the presents are things someone needs, even if he doesn’t know it: a thrifted spring jacket to replace one that’s worn out, a homemade waterproof bag to carry his shoes home from work instead of an old plastic bag. Sometimes they’re just nice. Like books. Or beer. Or chocolate. Mmm, chocolate.
I love wrapping presents. I love seeing the presents grow under the tree as Christmas approaches. This is unlikely to change. What have changed are the wrappings themselves.
Here are a few ways to do Christmas without doing wrapping paper. I’ll tell you now, they’re all easier, cheaper, and/or more fun than that shiny paper on the roll that always rips when you’re in a hurry.
Part one: paper
Brown paper (oddly called ‘kraft paper’ on teh interwebs) has been staging a comeback. Once the wrap of choice for any kind of parcel (in the days before single-use shopping bags), it was eclipsed by purpose-made ‘wrapping paper’, but no more. If you live in the US, paper bags are a sturdy option. The UK doesn’t seem to favor paper bags. I am, however, graced with an abundance of brown paper whenever I open a package from amazon. Heaps of paper. Festoons of paper.
Pair it with string, colored ribbon, or tinsel. For extra sustainability, fabric ribbons can be used year after year, or repurposed for other crafts. But even using recycled paper is a step in the right direction. (Make sure to have a recycling bag by the tree so it doesn’t go to the landfill!)
For extra fun, embellish with colored pens or markers, or kick it up a notch with silver and gold sharpie. Anyone can draw a tree or a snowflake. Just take it one line at a time.
Junk mail is the worst. My little environmentalist heart just bleeds every time a giant flyer goes straight from my letter bow into the recycling bin. (It would bleed even worse if I read the flyers, though.) But there is a bright side, at least for bright adverts! Things that are printed in bright colors and patterns look equally bright under the Christmas tree. Or if you’re aiming for a more subdued, classy look, go for plain black-and-white newsprint with red string, ribbon or tags.
My subversive little self also enjoys using promotions for commercial Christmas junk to avoid having to buy wrapping paper. It just warms the cockles of my heart.
A few months before Christmas, I start keeping an eye out for magazines with nice pages. This year’s stars were a lovely glossy sales magazine from a supermarket, a fundraising catalogue from the John Muir Trust (some lovely wild landscapes in that one, naturally), and the Christmas edition of the Historic Scotland magazine. The full-color, glossy turkey and bright red lobster were a big hit at the St Nicholas* gift swap this year. The winter edition of any catalogue should have some great, glossy pictures. If you don’t get catalogues (email me to tell me how you manage it), ask friends for theirs.
*In the Netherlands, St Nicholas’ Eve, the day before the saint’s day of St Nicholas, is the major December holiday. It’s become a tradition for our Dutch friend to throw a party featuring a most fabulously convoluted gift swap game. Much better than your standard white elephant swap.
You can get big sheets by removing the center staples, or just taping pages together. Use exactly as wrapping paper, but with smug satisfaction that you’re not contributing to Christmas landfills. And of course, recycle after use! (Or burn; we always had two bags for Christmas wrap, one for the woodstove and one with the awkward ribbons, etc.)
One of several sea glass Christmas decorations I’ve been working on. Originally intended for my sister, the garland found a home here when I realized just how heavy a large box of glass was going to be.
I’m slightly disappointed, though, not to get to fill out the customs form on that package. “What’s in the box, ma’am?” “Half a kilo of broken glass and some string.”
Here’s to a holiday spent not in jail.
Textiles, three ways
Whatever approach you take to textiles, it’s an extra gift on top of a gift. And if you go about it right, it can still cost less than buying wrapping paper at the shop. And for 2 of the 3 options, no sewing is required.
There are two ways to go about this: buying fabric for the purpose, or using what you have.
Mama K. uses leftover bits from her quilting stash. I use outgrown or unloved clothes. It doesn’t cost me a penny.
If you’re buying, check the clearance rack—anything red, green, gold, or cheerful will work. Putting a big red bow on any color will make it look Christmassy. If you have a lot of forethought, you can also hit the sales right after Christmas for those seasonal prints. Or hit charity shops to get huge yardages for very cheap, as sheets, duvet covers or curtains.
Wrappings that are cheerful but not obviously Christmassy (such as the polka dots below) can be used year-round; add a big red bow for December, or a coordinating bow for a birthday.
If this is the first year you’re experimenting with fabric wrappings, this is the simplest approach. Take a rectangle of fabric in an appropriate size and wrap your present as you would with wrapping paper, tucking the raw edges under if desired. Finish off by tying ribbon or string around the folded-down ends of the package to hold the cloth in place.
Alternatively, roll the gift in fabric like a giant hard candy and tie at both ends.
Or cut a large circle of fabric (hemming optional), place the gift in the middle, and tie the fabric on top, like a gift basket.
This is my favorite option. If this is your first year using them, it takes a small outlay of time. In subsequent years, though, you just pop the present in the bag and you’re done. The bags are infinitely reusable and so darn useful. Mama K. made some to hold some of our wedding presents, and we’ve been using them for years to hold dance shoes, laundry, and various other household items. Erin Boyle of Reading My Tea Leaves uses similar bags to keep her tiny house organized, as do I. The best kind of stuff is the stuff you don’t have to look at.
But I digress.
If this looks like the leg of my pajama pants, there’s a reason for that.
Clothes often have hems and seams that can be used to save you some folding or sewing. Pant legs, for example, already have vertical seams, and a hem if it’s not too worn out. Skirts usually have good hems. A slight curve really isn’t a problem.
Large bags can be folded down to fit much smaller presents. This is the same bag as above:
The tidiest way to (temporarily) remove width is to fold one corner in toward the other, like you’re folding a fitted sheet. (If you don’t know the right way to fold a fitted sheet, look it up on youtube. I’ll wait.) Then slide the gift in as though the back three layers were all one layer. (If this seems too complicated, just put the small gift in the big gift bag.)
To remove height, fold the top down inside the bag before tying. The wrapping on the small package above uses both of these techniques.
You have your choice of closures, too. Drawstrings are convenient (though not necessary) for post-Christmas use around the house (here’s a roundup of drawstring bag tutorials). For wrapping I prefer bags with no closure, because it’s easier to tie on tinsel, holly, or a show-stoppingly enormous bow. These are fabulously simple to sew: folded/sewn on 3 sides, and hemmed. (And depending on the fabric, the hem is optional.)
The art of wrapping gifts in fabric is hardly a new one. The Japanese have long used a square of cloth called a furoshiki both as a gift wrap and a very adaptable carrier bag. These are available for purchase, or make your own by hemming a large square of fabric. For small gifts, a thrift store scarf or a bandana will serve the same purchase. Consider printing out a visual guide to using a furoshiki and slipping it in the present so that the recipient can enjoy using the furoshiki in their daily life.
Seriously, there’s a wrap for carrying anything in a furoshiki. One bottle of wine? No problem. 2 bottles? We can make it so they don’t even clink together. A watermelon? There’s a wrap for that. (Look here for more furoshiki techniques.)
Depending on your comfort with sewing, this may sound like a lot of work for something you’re going to give away. I find it worthwhile if any of the following applies:
Keep it in the family. If you’re using these bags for your spouse or children’s gifts, you only have to make them once, and you’ll be all set on wrappings more or less forever. Instead of putting a trash bag by the tree, put a box to keep the wrappings in for next year. They’ll become a well-loved tradition, like your stockings and ornaments. And the kids won’t come running for scotch tape come next Christmas.
Give to like-minded friends. Mumsy and I have been using the same gift bags back and forth for a couple of years, tied with pretty ribbons. If the recipient passes the bag on to someone else next year, you’re spreading the good word about reusable gift wrap without a sound.
Enjoy giving an extra gift. If the recipient is the kind of person who will use a gift bag around the house, the extra organization is an extra gift. And unlike paper, it’s still not going in the landfill. Yay!
If the recipient doesn’t fit any of the above categories, perhaps some recycled paper wrapping is in order?