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I was a professional gift wrapper. • You're super impressed right now, hull? • OK, maybe you're not. But this time of year, just that kind of background can come in mighty handy. • Oh, sure, you can go on various DIY websites and find all kinds of brilliant ideas for holiday gift wrapping. But folding together a tight, pretty package is more than fancy ribbons, cute cutouts and inventive gift tags. There are basics that have to come first. • I can pass along these basics because I was, you know, a professional and all. I worked my way through college in the customer service office of a now-defunct department store. • The office also was the site of the free gift wrapping service desk. Yes, free. Of charge. As in free. • Customers love — love! — anything free.

Now, imagine that office during the holiday season. We had purchased items of all sorts piled up daily on the counters. Don't even ask about weekends. Sometimes, I was the only person in the department. A gal in that position had to come up with some serious tricks to getting a gift wrapped not only fast, but well enough to pass customer muster.

Free did not mean messy, and, trust me, customers do not hold back on telling you that. With venom.

Not to brag, but I was the fastest wrapper in the store. I had that busi-

ness down to a science, and I can pass on a little of that professional knowledge. Of course, a lot of people already know how to wrap a fine-looking package, but others just don't have the knack. So call this gift wrap 101 — a few basics for tight, neat holiday delights.

Getting started

You'll need decent tools, but nothing fancy: sharp scissors, tape, gift tags, a pen, ribbons and bows, tissue paper, boxes and gift bags of assorted sizes. You'll also need good wrapping paper. That cheap thin stuff is just going to tear when you tighten it on box corners. You don't have to go broke on paper, but the better the stock, the better the package will look.

(A side tip: Buy your wrapping paper, boxes and gift bags the day after Christmas. They're at least 50 percent off and most stores have stocked so much during the season, there's plenty to choose from, even later in the day when the post-Christmas crowds have gone home. If you wait a couple days more, you can snag some for 75 percent off. Jot that down on the calendar for Dec. 26.)

Have a garbage bag next to you to toss in cut-paper castoffs, price tags — I don't have to tell you that the first thing to do is take off the price tag, do I? — and other trash as you work to keep a clutter-free space.

Do your wrapping on a large, hard, flat surface, like the dining room table or a tile-free kitchen island.

Tissue, please

If you're placing something in a gift box, place one or two sheets of tissue paper inside the box, folding it in the middle to fit the size of the box. Place the gift in the center and fold over each side of tissue.

If you're using a gift bag, lay two or three sheets of tissue paper on top of each other at various angles on the table. Place the bottom of the gift in the center then pull up the tissue around it. Gently insert this package inside a gift bag (don't use one that's too big or too small... it needs to be juuuuuust right). Fold over at least one side of the tissue tips to cover the gift. Now, take another sheet of tissue and fold it separately into a triangle. From the center at the widest part of the bottom, pull down the tissue to create a sort of dumpling wrapper shape. Tuck it into the gift bag so the loose corners stick up at varying heights, like paper flames coming out of the bag; place two or three of these tucked tissues inside.

Paper trail

For wrapped presents, measure out the horizontal sides by rolling out more wrap than the box will need. Place the box, top down, in the middle of the paper, then bring the loose side (off the roll) over to the opposite far side of the box. Now take the roll side and fold it over the box, allowing for at least a 2-inch overage.

Snip the spot to mark it, then — as straight as you can — cut the paper. (Some of the better paper comes with handy-dandy grids on the back side so you can follow the premarked straight line.)

If the vertical ends are too long for the size of the box, trim one end so that each end is a bit short of covering the box. The key is to not have too much paper or any hang-over, which leads to bulky gift syndrome. Adjust the box so the vertical ends are evenly distributed.

Fold over one horizontal side of paper and tape it down. Gently push the box into the cubby made by this fold so it's taut against the paper. Now, on the loose side, fold over 1 inch of paper so that you have a nice clean edge (this is so any jagged cut edges are hidden). Fold the loose side over the box and gently pull it taut. Neatly tape it down in one or two spots along the folded edge to keep it secure and flat. (You also can use double-sided tape under the fold, if you prefer, so tape doesn't show at all.)

Moving to one vertical end, fold each side in so you have an envelope-like flap on the top and bottom. Crease down the paper on the bottom against the table for a taut fit and flat edge. Flip over the box and do the same on the other edge. Now, the top of package is facing up. Pull up the bottom flap taut against the box and tape it in place. Flip the box over again. Fold over at least 1/2-inch of the remaining flap to have that clean edge. Pull that side up taut over the other flap and neatly tape it down. Do the same on the other vertical end.

Now you can add your ribbons and bows and gift tags.

Tougher jobs

Some odd-shaped packages can be a bear to wrap and are best suited to gift bags. But if you insist on having paper for the recipient to tear into, there are a couple of tricks to consider.

For example, some toys come with the front of the boxes open. That can make it hard to get a taut package, plus you run the risk of curious hands tearing the wrap on the open side before Christmas morning. Cut a piece off a cardboard box that just fits the open space and tuck it inside, securing it with tape to create a firm side for the paper.

Flat gifts like calendars, video games, DVDs and CDs can be handled by creating sort of wrapping envelopes. Wrap the horizontal sides as noted above, but for the vertical ends, carefully tuck the seam side of the paper back under the gift until it's flat and you've created an envelope flap on the other side. Fold over the flap's tip for a clean edge, then pull the flap over onto the seamed bottom and tape it down.

Cash and cards

I'm not big on giving money or gift cards (except tucked into Christmas stockings), but in some instances, it really is the most thoughtful thing to do. For example, this year on my list is a young new parent who probably could use cash more than anything else.

But that doesn't mean it can't be fun to open. Instead of tucking it into an envelope or one of those tiny gift card boxes, I taped the money to a canister of gourmet hot chocolate mix and bagged it up with red tissue paper billowing out.

You can do the same with all sorts of inexpensive but recipient-appropriate items — attach money or gift cards to a necktie, a bag or box of favorite candy, a coffee mug or any other small item that reflects on the likes or personality of the recipient.

Gifts, after all, should have thought put into them. And it's all the better when they come in pretty, pretty packages.

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