What's in the box?
Wrapping Paper Rapture
The whole panoply of Christmas coverings.
by Joseph Bottum
Tinsel. No one needs tinsel. Even the word is a tinselly kind of word. It ought to have been a mild profanity, suitable for bridge clubs and 1950s sorority girls: "Oh, tinsel, I forgot my keys again, Janie." Instead, it names one of the most destructive substances known to humankind. Originally made from lead foil--till somebody finally noticed that it was turning children's livers purple and green--the loathsome stuff evolved through various aluminum incarnations to become the plastic killer that it is today. Tinsel murdered my vacuum cleaner this Christmas. Sucked up into the air vents, tinsel wrapped itself around the motor, melted, and smothered the helpless appliance. Tinsel smoked, and tinsel sparked, and tinsel set off the fire alarm. And now, on top of all the other holiday expenses, I have to run out and buy a new vacuum cleaner. Oh . . . tinsel.
I should probably pick up more wrapping paper while I'm out. There's never enough of the stuff. Has anyone else noticed something sick, something slightly disturbed, about wrapping paper? It's a neurosis, really: this desire to grab anything that isn't moving and swaddle it in oddly printed sheets of red and green. A genuine case of hebephrenia, I think, but I can't be sure because my reference books have all been shoved back on their shelves to make room for the piles of tissue paper, rolls of bright ribbons, and endless tubes of wrapping paper.
My wife and daughter are both mad wrappers. They love the whole panoply of Christmas coverings. They box, bedeck, and bundle. They camouflage, cloak, and case. They drape, enfold, mask, muffle, pack, sheathe, shroud, and veil. There's my daughter, happy as a bird, perched at the dining-room table, hand-coloring paper to wrap the hand-painted box that holds the hand-made present she prepared for her great-grandmother. The tip of her tongue sneaks to the corner of her mouth in her concentration, and she hums with the carols she's put on the CD player to help her along.
It's cute as a button, I know, but I still don't get it. I mean, nearly every purchased gift comes pre-packaged in plastic and brightly printed cardboard, or nestled in a nice little box, and usually shrink-wrapped as well. And as soon as we buy it, we immediately swaddle it in yet more layers of extraneous material: cotton batting, and tissue paper, and wraps, and boxes, and containers. My daughter spent weeks working on her presents--and now weeks more working on their wrapping, abetted by her mother: "I know, honey! Let's pack your aunts' presents in tissue paper and put them inside these nice little bags with the string handles! That way you can paint Christmas designs on the bags, too!"
Oh, goody. The mailman just brought the annual package from friends in Wyoming. Why do we have to open it? We know what it is. There's the brown grocery-bag paper, which covers the corrugated-cardboard box, which contains the Styrofoam peanuts, which bury the red and green wrapping paper, which surrounds the tin cookie box, which holds the sheets of wax paper, which envelop the homemade sugar cookies. The same homemade sugar cookies our friends send every year. All of which will be broken, because sugar cookies just don't travel well. I think I would have preferred a tasteful card.
Ah, well. Christmas comes like a fire every year--a burning declaration of warmth and brightness in the December cold and dark. It's a stance, really, for Christians, a theological choosing of sides: Against the Fall, God gave us this, and with this we will stand. Why should it be a surprise that the theology has psychological consequences? A preference for bright colors, a wish to decorate and adorn, a hunger for extravagance, a desire for celebration.
On Christmas Day, after Mass, I'll see the tree all gussied up, a bandits' den of brightly colored gifts underneath it. I'll watch my daughter open her presents--gently and carefully, not wanting to tear the pretty wrappings. I'll smell the Christmas dinner beginning in the kitchen and hear the old familiar anthems play. I'll look around in satisfaction at the wild mess of wrapping paper and opened packages and stray pine needles and scattered crumbs of sugar cookies. And, of course, I'll remember that I forgot to buy the new vacuum cleaner to clean it all up. Tinsel.