This is part of a continuing series of free-lance columns that help explain how to deal with situations in our lives and/or how to make life more enjoyable.
When my family of seven lived in New York, the day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the ritual of waiting for my grandparents' Christmas gifts to arrive from California. Grandmother would call on Thanksgiving Day to say how many packages--usually three or four--had been sent. If all the packages didn't arrive by Christmas, we would still have to wait until the last package was delivered before we could open any of our grandparents' gifts.
You can eliminate some of the anxiety of sending holiday presents to friends and relatives by packaging the gifts properly. There's no guarantee that every gift will get to its destination and in time for the holidays, but correct packaging will give you the best chance.
Start by choosing the right container. The most commonly used is a corrugated or fiberboard box. If you're sending a heavy or valuable present, use a double-thick one. There are also boxes designed for specialty items, from posters to pictures. New boxes are available at U.S. post offices or at packaging supply-and-service stores.
"If you use an old box make sure it's in good condition," advises Raymond (Ray) Price, owner of the Boxx Shoppe in Van Nuys. The box should be sturdy, have its flaps intact and have all old addresses marked out.
Boxes sent by package handlers, such as the U.S. Postal Service or United Parcel Service (UPS), must not have dimensions of more than 108 inches (measure once around the box the short way, then across one side the opposite way). Price, whose shop was established in 1978 as the first retail box store in the United States, recommends this method for measuring: Find the carton's width, length and depth measurements, which are usually stamped on it. Double the two smallest numbers, and add them to the third number. For example, if a box is 10 inches by 6 inches by 12 inches, then it measures 44 inches around.
Both UPS and the post office limit parcels to 70 pounds. UPS also charges the 25-pound rate if your package measures more than 84 inches total dimensions and weighs less than 25 pounds. If you're sending several gifts and they won't properly fit into a box that measures a maximum of 84 inches, Price suggests that you use two parcels instead.
If you send a box by air freight, particularly if it's going overseas, check with the company for its size-and-weight restrictions. To measure a box for an air-shipping company simply add the width, length and depth measurements without doubling any of the numbers.
The next step is to cushion your holiday gifts. Printed newspaper is often used by gift-senders, but Price warns that the ink will stain the presents. "Make certain it doesn't make contact," he says, by placing tissue paper or other cushion material in between. Or try unprinted newspaper, which is sold in packaging and art-supply stores.
Foamed plastic shapes called "popcorn" or "peanuts" are "the easiest packing material," Price says. "We call it the lazy man's packer." Although it's more expensive than crumpled newspaper or unprinted newspaper, it does a better job of absorbing shock.
For a fragile or breakable item, Price recommends that, if possible, you wrap it in material called "bubble" plastic sheeting, place the gift in its own container, put it in a double-thick box and pack foam plastic around it.
No matter what type of cushioning you use, follow these three rules: Separate gifts from each other, keep them from moving inside the box and don't pack too tightly.
Use filament strapping tape, pressure seal tape or gummed paper tape to seal your carton. Most shipping companies, including the post office and UPS, will not accept packages sealed with cellophane or masking tape. Price recommends that you avoid using string or brown wrapping paper on the outside of the box, since both could get caught in the conveyor belts.
When you address the parcel, keep it simple. Write one "from" address and one larger "to" address on the package. "It's a good idea to keep the labeling within the center of the box," Price advises. A 3-by-5-inch label that contains both addresses is ideal.
Do not, however, put a label on the tape or on the carton's seals because they can tear loose. Enclose a second label inside the carton in case the parcel is damaged and the outside address is lost.
Valuable gifts, such as electronic items, can be sent in their own packaging, Price adds, but you may want to put them in a second box as well. Otherwise, any markings indicating what's inside the carton could invite theft, he warns.
If you send homemade goods, such as cookies, candy and fruitcake, preparations for mailing should be made before you bake them, according to Genevieve Ho, home adviser for the Los Angeles County Cooperative Extension.