Fit to Be Tied

BETTY DUNN has worked as a news reporter in Texas, taught English at Marquette University, and is now a reporter for LIFE magazine in New York.

Our Christmas gifts from my family arrived by mail the other day. They look as interestingly mauled as all packages do when they’ve come a long distance. But with the brown paper off them, I can see that the Yule wrappings and ribbons still retain the same old, durable family charm.

At least the ribbons do. As with heirlooms in other families, so it is with old Christmas ribbons in mine. They get handed down. With the proper care a good Christmas ribbon has a longevity which ribbon makers,

I am sure, would dislike to have noised around.

There is one ribbon in my family’s possession, a wide red satin one, that has gone the full circle on successive Christmases from mother to daughter to sister to father. That was its history three years ago, before I married and moved away. There was talk of getting it off the place that year, perhaps on the plate of fudge destined to go next door, but prudence checked us. Maybe it came from next door in the first place. Besides, it’s hard to let a good one go. I don’t know which member of the family got the red satin ribbon this year, since I didn’t.

The trouble with old ribbons is that they are always too good to throw away. In my family, frequently, that was also the trouble with them last year and the year before. By the third season sentiment threatens to supersede economy, thereby knotting permanently the ties that bind. But not so tightly that they can’t be smoothed out and made attractive for family reconsumption.

Everyone has his share of memories of Christmas at home — of the laden board, of cookies overflowing their cookie jars and stuffed carelessly, with the munificence of an Indian cookie prince, into any available pot or pan, of the magic hours spent trimming a glittering tree.

These are almost stock memories for a fortunate segment of mankind. Add to these a vision of an ironing board, as I see it still in my mind’s eye, with the lights on early in the evening of a December day, with the Old Christmas Ribbon Box on the table nearby, a slightly exhausted specimen shimmering uncoiled on the board, and the Christmas scene reappears for me in sharp focus.

“Shall we use this nice green one on your father’s shirt, or should we start him out fresh this year?” If such a dilemma, as we may loosely term it, occurs in other households this year, I can say with authority that the only solution is to put aside wrapping all family gifts till last, when the new ribbon is running low and clearly must be conserved for last-minute gifts to outsiders. Then the nice green ribbon automatically goes under the tree because — and your conscience is clear — you have no other choice.

And the new ribbon, almost as automatically, goes into the box after Christmas, to be used to lead off with next year. Why is it that those last-minute callers, arms laden, almost never materialize? In the prepared family the expected unexpected outsider rarely shows up to claim the spare bottle of cologne or bubble bath, held back for emergencies. Consequently, you seldom have to fork over the last of the new ribbon.

It isn’t just that new ribbon costs too much each year, or that a wildly extravagant display under the family tree is out of place, when it’s the thought that really counts (and what’s inside), or that the old ribbon can be revived to look just as good anyway. That isn’t it exactly. “Entirely” is the more precise word. And with today’s expanding families — more children and grandchildren, new cousins-in-law all the time — where better to exercise some Christmas economy than at home among the bows and glittering strands that can become such burdensome financial ties?

Re-using the old is not only a challenge to the cunning eye and and — I wish you could see the tie box that I have here for my husband (it probably holds gloves), with the ribbon edges pinked where they were worn, doubtlessly, and a little mashed pine cone taped fondly in place — not only is old ribbon a challenge, but it releases the new for outside use. Which is only fair, Pactically the whole of the Old Christmas Ribbon Box is outside stock, contributed by friends, neighbors, distant relatives, and a distinguished few business acquaintances with expense accounts and a devilmay-care attitude toward fifty-cent professional gift wraps. They gave their best, and it has been appreciated, year after year. Any selfrespecting family will go all out to return the compliment.

One thing we’ve never done in my family is fake a Christmas wrap to make it look exactly as though it came from the gift-wrap counter of a store. There’s no point in fooling each other, particularly when you can’t get away with it. All readymade ribbon bows are taken apart completely and recreated, with the occasional pine cone, like the one on my husband’s tie box, or other professional bauble added in an entirely new context. Nor does anyone go scrounging around for Dixie Cups, in an attempt to ape store giftwrappers, to protect a bulky decoration in the mail. That explains why it was mashed.

True, the family ribbon robin is hard to maintain once the children have grown, married, and moved away. If you don’t know whether you’ll settle permanently where you happen to be, you don’t take on a responsibility like storing old Christmas ribbon. So I actually send out new to everybody now — mother, father, sister — everybody, without favor or discrimination.

Last year I used gold satin ribbon on white shiny paper. Re-using paper, even if it is of exceptional quality, doesn’t work very well unless it comes in on a large box and goes out the next year on a small one. That way you can cut off the wrinkles and creases, because they certainly don’t respond very well to the iron. This other package from home attests plainly to that.

But that gold ribbon, now, looks almost as good as the day I sent it out.