Andare, Partire, Tornare


Pondering ponderings on wrappings

The Karal Ann Marling book _Merry Christmas: Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday_ is proving to be, much like her book on the culture of the 1950's, a really interesting examination of how customs evolved, how we got from point A to point B, and what it all might mean. Here, Marling is tackling the way America celebrates Christmas, and tracks it from its roots in the Victorian era all the way up to present day. Frequent stops are made in each decade, as things shift in the late 1800's, the early 1900's, the war years (both sets of them) and the Depression. It's truly fascinating, and her style is very clear and acessable.

The first chapter launches into a tradition I didn't even think much of. Why do presents have to be wrapped? What about the beautiful box under the tree says "it's Christmas" so strongly? Marling notes that originally, gifts were left unwrapped and actually hung on the tree, or possibly placed in a cornucopia along with sweets that was then hung from a branch. The stocking was the first idea of the wrapper for a present - a delightful thing to be able to dive into on Christmas morning. This idea tracks through the notion that things now *needed* to be boxed - when shipped from a factory as opposed to stocked in a general store, that extra layer of packaging not only said it was untouched since manufactured, but it told everybody where you bought it from (so you could play oneupmanship with your neighbors) and it played off the Victorian's taste for "gilding the lily." Quite frequently, a person would receive a nicely wrapped gift (for many decades, white tissue paper with red or green ribbon was *how* one wrapped a present - and it might be sealed with wax or pins since there was no Scotch Tape until 1932) and within it he or she would find a delightful container to hold something else...buttons, or stockings, or pipes, or what have you. So basically, you were creating a package to hold something that you created to package another object.

Marling also looks at the idea that it was women who did the wrapping - there was (is?) a common perception that men couldn't be trusted to wrap something as it needed to be wrapped. I was a bit startled by this until I gave it some thought, and realized that it was always my mom who did the Christmas wrapping for family presents. And it was with paper either new-bought or saved carefully from last year, with "good bows" and "nice ribbon" being reused to make the nicest picture under the tree.

And I didn't know that the first big product Hall popularized was not greeting cards, but wrapping paper...and thus the Hallmark holiday juggernaut was born.

"Massed quantities of presents set up in this way, in a kind of domestic display that amounts to a secular creche, lend credibility to the complaints of those who rail against Christmas as a 'National Festival of Consumption' or a coast-to-coast, mallized potlatch ceremony. But 96 percent of all American households still wrap anyway. The shopper's anual murmur of discontent with the impersonal materialism of it all may account for a fresh groundswell of enthususiasm in recent years for homemade wrappings. Wrappings and packaging which are useful in their own right, Martha Stewart's pathologically creative suggestions for wrapping gifts in glorified paper bags, and the spasms of eco-friendly angst expressed through presents wrapped in old newspaper and biodegradable hemp respond to a persistent national sense of satiety and waste."

During the Great Depression, despite the fact that presents consisted of cans of food or penny candy, presents were wrapped with as much color and elan as could be mustered. Or, instead of "despite," rather say, "because?"

7:06 p.m. - 2002-11-23


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