RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—I come from a long line of thrifty Yankees: We reused and made due and had a very good time doing it. One of the traditions of Christmas while I was growing up was the “Brown Ribbon.” Some decades earlier, an uncle had received a package trimmed with the most hideous ribbon anyone in the family had ever seen, made of dark brown gauze with gold threads running through it. The following year the ribbon reappeared on a package addressed to another family member from the (smirking) original recipient. After that, the Brown Ribbon’s fate was sealed: It reappeared on a package each year. And just who would be honored with it was the subject of not a little conjecture beforehand.
You may not be lucky enough to have a Brown Ribbon tradition in your family. But here are a few suggestions to help you decorate gift packages for your family and friends without spending much (or any) money on wrapping. And you won’t add to the inevitable avalanche of ripped-apart paper that gets tossed into the trash this time of year.
• Just trim it: Giving away wine or some other potable? Tie a pretty, reusable ribbon around the neck of the bottle. Or dress up any gift with little bunches of greenery, berries, and other natural materials from your yard or local natural area (bunches of perennial herbs are especially nice, and usable too). Tie with twine or yarn scraps.
• Make the “wrapping” a gift in itself: Package small gifts in glass storage jars. Besides being useful food-storage containers that don’t contain chemicals that leach into food, they make great drinking glasses and flower vases. (I’m partial to wide-mouth canning jars, which cost about a buck each.) Reusable shopping bags, or a scarf pinned shut with a brooch from a thrift store, also make great gift wrappers. It’s even more fun to stick to a theme: Wrap something for the kitchen in a bright dishtowel, wrap a local guidebook in a local road map, or present that new electronic gadget in a protective carrying bag.
• Box it. Make colorful, reusable gift boxes out of the shoeboxes, shirt boxes, and other boxes you’ve accumulated over the years. Glue leftover wrapping paper, pages from magazines and newspapers, and other images that match the recipient’s taste onto the box and lid (make sure the box will open without disturbing the paper). And, of course, save wrapping paper and trimmings that come your way this season to use for future gifts.
• Let the kids do the work. Kids of all ages can turn old paper bags, plain newsprint leftover from art class or crafts projects, or any other scrap paper that’s lying around, into seasonal wrapping. Cut thin sponges into holiday stamps—stars, candy canes, trees, etc.—or use an X-acto knife to carve a raised shape into the flat side of a cut potato. Then let the kids stamp up a storm with nontoxic paint. (Instead of buying paint, I like to dice up a red beet and simmer it in a little water until only a thin layer of red juice remains. The juice makes great ink, and you can eat the beet or use it in a stew.)
• Take a half-step. If you’re not ready to give up wrapping paper just yet, buy recycled and recyclable brands (skip the foil type, it’s difficult to recycle). And be sure to save (or properly recycle) all the wrappings, ribbons, and boxes that come your way.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around spendthrift Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.