There will likely come a day, sometime in the not-too-distant future, when we look back on wrapping paper with the kind of retrospective condescension we reserve for the most naive elements of our history. Wasting precious paper—killing trees—for decoration! Spending money on a total frivolity! How ridiculous people were back then!
And it is true: The money we spend on it notwithstanding—$2.6 billion annually, per one estimate—there is something quite trivial about wrapping paper. As much as half of the 85 million tons of paper products Americans consume each year, apparently, goes toward packaging, wrapping, and decorating objects—and wrapping paper and shopping bags on their own account for about 4 million tons of the trash we create annually in the U.S. In Britain, per one estimate, people throw away 226,800 miles of wrapping paper over the holidays alone—enough to stretch nine times around the world.
So wrapping paper is expensive. Wrapping paper is wasteful. Wrapping paper is, technically, impractical. That said, however, wrapping paper is also pretty awesome: It's pretty, it's arty, and it's one way, among others, to make even the most impersonal offerings—gift cards, electronics, even (eeeek) cash—seem meaningful. For better or for worse, there's just something about a big red bow.