The Rev. Stephen Milton explores how a simple layer of colourful paper adds to the mystery and wonder of Christmas.

why do we wrap presents
Published On: December 13, 2023

Pretty much everyone who gives a Christmas present wraps it in colourful paper—or a pretty box or gift bag. But why? The historical answer is that back in the 19th century, most people gave each other homemade gifts, which came wrapped in intimacy and affection, but usually without any wrapping paper. When stores wanted in on the Christmas gift business, they were in competition with homemade items. To compete, they started wrapping their products, so they looked more special. In time, everyone was buying wrapping paper for almost all Christmas gifts, even the homemade ones.

The Hallmark Brothers basically invented Christmas wrapping paper in 1917, when they ran out of tissue paper, and sold fancy French patterned paper instead out of desperation. Customers liked it so much Hallmark started making their own wrapping paper. Today, stores sell us not only the present, but the wrapping too. Not a bad hustle!

But why does a gift need to be wrapped at all? We can sense that a certain magical quality is lost with an unwrapped gift. The addition of a thin layer of colourful paper transforms a product into a gift. There is a temporary sense of possibility, where one thing could be many (is it a watch, a ring, a Fitbit?). Wrapping paper lends a gift of cosmic possibility, a connection to the rest of the universe, literally and in the imagination. All those possibilities last until the moment we rip open the paper, and the gift collapses, to be revealed as only what it is.

That sense of possibility seems entirely in keeping with Christmas, when we are invited to believe that almost anything is possible. It’s not hard to imagine why we have opted for that sense of wonder and possibility, even for products we could have purchased on ourselves. Wrapping paper is the material expression of the Christmas spirit.

—Rev. Stephen Milton came to Lawrence Park Community Church in Toronto in 2019, after decades of work as a documentary filmmaker. His passion is creating new ways to explore spirituality, appealing to people who aren’t interested in regular Sunday morning church services.

The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.

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