When you think about it, the idea of wrapping presents in paper and ribbon only to remove it to reveal the true gift is odd. It’s not usually part of the gift itself, it doesn’t increase the value, and it’s often immediately discarded.
Anticipation is part of it, of course. There’s nothing like the excitement of seeing the presents under the Christmas tree, waiting to be revealed on Christmas morning (or Christmas eve, depending on your family tradition). But we even wrap gifts that we hand over immediately to be opened. Is this because wrapping a present for someone special can be as satisfying and fun as receiving a beautifully wrapped present? I’m not going to deny the joy in unwrapping a gift; whether you rip the paper off like a 4 year old, or untie the ribbon, carefully peel back the tape and thriftily fold up the ribbon and the paper for reuse (Hi, Mum!).
The Wrapping Paper Purpose
Do we wrap presents to impress the recipient, or make them feel more special, or enhance the gift itself? There might be some truth to this one. A 1992 study looked at whether the wrapping or not of a gift influenced the attitude of the receiver to the gift. The outcome showed that when the same item was received wrapped, it was thought of more positively than when received unwrapped. And the nicer the wrapping, the more favourable the opinion of the gift was. The study concluded that because gift wrapping is associated with joyous events in our lives, that receiving a wrapped gift triggers happy memories, cueing a happy mood and a benevolent feeling towards the giver.
So it seems we can have an emotional response to a wrapped gift that we don’t have to the same item unwrapped. From a personal perspective, I think there is truth in this. Before he was married, presents from my brother were invariably handed over in the shopping bag he’d bought them in. After he married, gifts were beautifully wrapped by his wife, and yes, it created a warm glow in the way that the plastic bags did not!
The truth is that wrapping an (often ordinary) item is how we transform it into something special for a loved one. The impersonal – a book or CD – becomes personal when it’s wrapped. Instead of the latest bestseller from the display at the front of the bookshop, it becomes the book specifically chosen by the giver for the recipient. This is backed up by an anthropological study from 1990, in which Dr Carrier noted that gift wrapping became more popular and more individualised as mass production increased. Wrapping had become a way to distinguish between an anonymous commodity and a special gift. He emphasized this by reminding readers that a homemade gift – like a jar of jam – is rarely wrapped with anything but a ribbon bow.
The Finishing Touch
But we were wrapping presents long before the industrial age. Does wrapping presents hark back to a deeper underlying belief that we must somehow draw attention to certain items as special?
Wrapping paper and printed tissue paper is a fairly recent invention (and sticky tape wasn’t around until the 1930s). Paper was used for wrapping things (and protecting precious items) long before it was used to write on. In ancient China over 2,000 years ago, and the Japanese furoshiki and Korean bojagi traditional wrapping cloths date back a thousand years.
Is it an example of the reliquary effect, where seemingly valueless objects (the fingernails of a saint, or a scrap of clothing worn by a revered holy person, or an everyday item once used by someone special) are enclosed in the gold and jewels of a reliquary? Value is conferred by the outer adornment, emphasising – and drawing attention to – the greater value of the item inside.
And perhaps that’s what wrapping a gift really does. It literally makes it into a gift for you. It underscores the value of an item. Whether that’s transforming a mass produced item into an exclusive gift, or highlighting its true worth, it’s why wrapping a present, even just with a bit of ribbon, has been part of human society for millennia.