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An Unusual Family Holiday Tradition

A quirky ritual adds another layer of joy to holiday gift-giving

By Polly Campbell | December 14, 2012
creatively wrapped Christmas presents
Tin foil and duct tape are essential elements of this family's gift-wrapping tradition.
Courtesy of Polly Campbell

The moment I see my husband, Jerry, carting the five-foot cardboard box down from the attic every December, two emotions jolt me: excitement, and dread. This is our holiday “toolkit,” filled with snowman- and Santa-patterned paper, spools of red and silver ribbon, duct and Scotch tape, aluminum foil, lids from margarine tubs, wire cutters, craft glue, butcher paper in three colors, a wood-burning wand, shapeable wire, fishing line, dowels, felt, yarn and silver spray paint.
 
It’s hardly your typical box of gift wrap, but then, my family’s gifts have never been “typically” wrapped — at least not in my lifetime. Instead, gifts become veritable masterpieces through ingenuity, love and a whole lot of tinfoil, and this tradition has become a cornerstone of our family holiday celebration.
 
Creative Gift Wrapping
 
It’s an inheritance of sorts, this practice that started during a particularly hard Christmas back in 1966. My mother was looking for a way to cheer up my grandmother, who was slowly recovering from a hysterectomy. Dad was in law school, and Mom was teaching, so there wasn’t a lot of money left over for extravagances like Christmas presents.

The token gift they had purchased for my grandmother — sewing shears — seemed insignificant, so they wrapped them in the shape of a bird, its beak the tip of a blade, and hung it from the tree. As the oft-repeated family legend goes, “and much laughter ensued.”
 
The following year my grandparents got in on the act, wrapping a clam shovel in gold paper and gluing a candy clam to its face. Both my grandparents are gone now, but our family’s quirky wrapping tradition has carried on, now into the fourth generation.
 
But It’s Not All Fun and Games …
 
While this little ritual is creative and fun, it also has the ability to ratchet up my seasonal stress to a level that’s off the charts. As if it isn’t enough to budget for the gifts, muster the fortitude to shop for them then juggle everyone’s schedules to make time for special holiday activities, in our family the pressure’s on to turn a pair of slippers into a work of high art.
 
This custom also guarantees at least one doozy of a disagreement with my otherwise good-natured husband. Watching him struggle with the physics of rendering a golf club cover into a razor clam, I will helpfully offer casual suggestions (read: orders), like “Well, if you’re going to do it that way, you’d better put the sock part hanging out like the neck.”
 
To which Jerry will respond, “I’ll make my own clam my own way.”
 
And then we bicker over ideas and techniques until someone eventually makes a concession, and then, after a few eye-rolls and a quick apology or two — maybe — we’ll figure out together exactly how to make the best darned clam ever.

(MORE: Holiday Gifts That Give Back)
 
Unlikely Masterpieces
 
What to create is usually a greater challenge than the actual execution. I literally have lost sleep in search of divine inspiration for a screwdriver set. But then, hours or days later, Jerry will slip into engineer mode and analyze exactly how to turn the paper and the duct tape into a masterpiece. Then we get busy.
 
When we’re done, we parade our creation around like we’ve just sculpted Michelangelo’s David, not a cardboard hibachi or a Jolly Green pea pod. And, I must admit, in spite of the high levels of cortisol the exercise has released, the artistic afterglow carries us into the next year.
 
The gifts we exchange are generally practical and seldom expensive, and it’s not uncommon for the wrapping to be more elaborate than the gifts they conceal. One year my sister turned a martini shaker into a silver rocket ship. Jerry and I once reconfigured a pair of four-foot flagpoles into giant chopsticks, which we then placed into a Chinese food takeout container (i.e., a giant cardboard box and white butcher paper). We even painted the obligatory red pagodas on the side.

We’ve molded drinking glasses into binoculars and an iPod into an eyeball. But one year's present was so clever it didn't need wrapping — the gift was the gag. In response to his daughter-in-law’s request for two-karat earrings, my grandfather pierced two baby carrots with wire loops and hung them on the tree.
 
Time Given to What Matters Most
 
Every year, on Christmas Eve, the family gathers to open their presents. When the wrapping comes off — after much exclaiming and high praise — the living room looks more like a Dollar Store threw up under a tree than a Norman Rockwell painting. Then we regale one another with embellished tales of our battles royale with glue guns and sparkles and gloat inwardly when our efforts are acknowledged.
 
Mostly, though, we laugh. We share memories of presents past and retell favorite family stories. At some point, someone will mention that the tradition does bring extra stress, but no one wants to opt out. That’s because when we see those oddly wrapped gifts with our names on them, we all feel the love.
 
It’s comforting to share something so special and silly with this family of mine. We don’t talk about it much, but when you take the time to wrap these gifts, you’re showing how much you care — and reinforcing a bond that's even stronger than duct tape.
 
I know perfectly well that I could go to the mall, pick out a crockpot and pay a little extra to have it professionally wrapped. But no matter how tired, lazy or stressed I feel, I know a greater truth: that pot will make an awesome, old-fashioned television set — maybe using soda bottle lids for dials and tinfoil for the screen...?
 
Polly Campbell is the author of Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People and a blogger at imperfectspirituality.com. She writes and speaks on personal development and spirituality topics.

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