As you can imagine, this was a very long time ago.
But our story begins even longer ago. When holiday gift-giving was first being established in the 6th century, gifts consisted mostly of ornamental rocks, buttons, string, and other small items. This meant they could be held in a clenched fist and hidden behind the back, in order to facilitate the original method of Christmas gift giving. The ‘pick-a-hand’ method.
This was the method first popularized by the Three Wisemen and subsequently adopted by by Jesus and his apostles. It naturally became the ‘done thing’.
It wasn’t long, however, (just a couple more centuries) until Santa Claus came along, with his plan to give toys to all the girls and boys. This simple bearded saint was unable to spend the months necessary to give each and every child in the world the time to ‘pick a hand’. So he decided to just put the presents into big socks and nail them to the hearth. This method worked incredibly well – as it provided Nick with the timesaving he needed, as well as preserving the element of surprise so crucial to gift receival.
The Stocking Method dominated Christmas for over 300 years (and gave us the tradition of the Christmas Stocking). Naturally, the ‘pick-a-hand,-any-hand’ ritual was demoted to a secondary strategy.
However, the invention of the Christmas Tree in 1567 changed everything yet again. What with all the tinsel, garlands and shiny balls, Ol’ Tannenbaum naturally took centre stage. This upheaval relegated Stockings to a supporting role, and pushed the clenched fist back to it’s year-round usage as a blunt weapon.
Presents by this time had evolved from rocks and string to larger items – such as carved pieces of wood, live animals, bottles of spirits, and other finery. To preserve the all-important ‘surprise’ element, these items needed some sort of wrapping while under the tree, in order to (and I quote 18th Century Christmasologist Sir Ebenezer Paddington) “bettere disguise the verily true nature of thy gift that therebein.”
After trial-and-erroring through a number of unsuitable coverings including: hats, animal skins, animal skin hats, untreated canvases, fake beards, and marble, paper was deemed, by universal acclaim, to be “a covering most excellent, and hence forthwith the onlye Christmasse Wrapping.”
As befits such a joyous occasion, the paper was covered with snowmen, pictures of presents, stockings or reindeer -much as it is today.
Historical sidenote: The coloured ribbons that now serve a purely decorative function were the sole means of keeping wrapping paper closed until 1973, when tape was invented.