Who Else Misses Wrapping Paper?

Be honest: Pulling a present out of a gift bag is not that thrilling.

Have you heard? Christmas is coming. Every September it’s the same old lamentation: The stores put up all of their Christmas stuff (and it is Christmas, people, not “holiday,” so let’s all just be grown up about it) before the first leaf has fallen to signal the onset of autumn. “Too soon!” we all cry. And it is. But there is a reason for this early-birding of the yuletide, of course—retailers, under constant siege from both an abysmal economy and e-tailers, need to drum up the shopping frenzy as early as possible. Still, that doesn’t make it any less irritating.

But after I walked through the neighborhood Hallmark store the other day (more on that in a minute), I got to thinking about gift giving, and more so how gifts are presented. In other words, the lost art of gift wrapping.

If you’ve lived in Philly long enough, you remember the gift-wrapping department at John Wanamaker. Whether you were in the flagship on Market or one of the branches, the blue-haired matrons in the gift-wrapping department created frothy works of art with long rolls of shiny paper, yards of snaking ribbon and the occasional plush toy or artificial gardenia, plopped on for a final dash of flair. They worked their scissors like surgeons, resulting in curly ribbon accents that were impossible to replicate at the kitchen table, and they wrapped presents with the deftness of a nurse creasing a bed’s hospital corner. There was a majesty to their work, and a certain anticipatory glee in standing in line, looking up at the wall lined with the numbered wrapped boxes behind them, each one silently yelling to you, “Pick me!” when it came your turn to decide which you were going to select to have your ceramic bowl or angora sweater packaged in.

I was the designated gift-buyer among four sons, despite the fact I was also the youngest and had absolutely no context at the age of 10 as to what a good gift was for your mother’s birthday. But as long as my brothers didn’t have to think about it, they happily handed me cash and sent me off on the Y bus rumbling down Cottman Avenue toward John Wanamaker. One year I bought Mom a set of canisters for flour, sugar, coffee and tea; another, mermaid plaques for the bathroom. To her credit, she never complained—she was good about protecting your feelings that way—but I’m also sure she cast a sideways glance at my three brothers more than once.

My gift selection may have been suspect, but on the wrapping front I was a genius. Each year I managed to squeeze the few extra dollars out to afford professional gift wrapping, though even here I occasionally went off the rails: Seduced by a shimmering silver roll one year, I proudly went home and presented Mom with a hand mixer wrapped in … bridal paper.
Which brings me back to the Hallmark store. Over the years I learned how to wrap my own gifts, which was both cheaper and more practical, as the old department stores faded and closed their gift-wrapping functions as part of cost-cutting. This year I bought Mom two romance novels (she’s big on any narrative involving hoop skirts) and a bottle of perfume from Anthropologie, then walked over to Hallmark to find suitable wrapping paper. What I found instead were … bags. Lots and lots and lots of bags. There was almost no wrapping paper at all.

In hindsight, the domination of the gift bag should not have been so shocking. In a society where we just can’t ever seem to be quite lazy enough, the rise of the gift bag has come hand-in-hand with that of the gift card. It’s now common to see  gift cards presented in gift bags, as if to really hit home the point that you couldn’t have put any less thought into the whole exercise. To paraphrase Hallmark itself, it’s when you care enough to send the very least.

I know, I know: It’s all so very efficient. The gift card guarantees that the person will get something they actually want; the gift bag is reusable; everybody wins.

Except they really don’t. We’ve completely sucked the magic out of gift-giving, the joy and anticipation of seeing a beautifully wrapped gift and admiring not only its aesthetics, but the time and effort that went into making it, a signal by the giver that, “Hey, you’re worth it.” This cuts both ways: There is something not only sentimental and romantic but meaningful about taking the time to wrap a gift for someone else. That goes even more for the gift itself. Gift cards and money are useful. But they’re not personal. We may all laugh at the ugly sweater Aunt Madge gave us as kids, but we remember it, don’t we?

Call it the bankruptcy of thoughtfulness. We’re all just so busy anymore, aren’t we—rushing here, texting this, checking this off the list, jumping in the car to do this errand or that. Gift giving, and, by extension, gift wrapping—labors of love that telegraphed your personal connection to someone, and signaled how much they meant to you and how much you wanted to celebrate their particular occasion—seem almost antique now. Who has the time to go roaming through a thrift store to find an old hairbrush and mirror set, or that old children’s book your aunt cherished as a kid, or to take a beaten-up photograph of you and your best friend from high school and have it restored and framed? Isn’t a gift card from CVS just as good?

We all know the answer to that. Thoughtfulness in general is a quality too many of us have been derelict in teaching our kids, many of whom have grown up without any notion of what it’s like to actually give something for the sheer joy of it, and without expecting anything in return. And we may not be able to go to John Wanamaker and pick out some imaginative gift-wrapping confection, but we can certainly put a little more elbow grease into gift giving than a bag that’s a step up from what you get at Whole Foods.

I gave my mother her birthday presents last weekend. As she started to rip open the first and peek at the book title, she remarked happily, “Oh, good! Just the kind of book I’ve been looking for.” And then she looked at me and added, “And wrapped so nice.”