THERE ARE those who will tell you that it's what's inside that counts. Or, you can't judge a book by its cover. Nonsense. When it comes to giving gifts, first impressions count.

That's a lesson from my grandmother, who would never have considered entrusting her personally and painstakingly selected gift to the impersonal hands of the gift-wrap counter.

I can remember her, after spending hours carefully wrapping our gifts, imploring us each year to "Save the paper, save the paper!" -- a plea we kids heartlessly ignored. (Some friends have actually succeeded in this nearly impossible discipline, and in the process have begun a new Christmas tradition of their own. They've been using the same Christmas wrapping paper each year for ten years, adding new acquisitions to the collection each year).

So I took a lesson from my grandmother and friends, and now I use Christmas as an opportunity to create (temporary) works of art. It's corny, but my favorite part of the whole Christmas gift-giving tradition is wrapping it up.

One year I used three shades of primary-colored paper and constructed small origami-like paper sculptures atop each package, no two alike -- pyramids, fountains, globes, flowers.

Last year I invested in gold foil paper, and a hunt in Chinatown turned up some tiny red paper envelopes embossed with gold dragons. Each envelope was stuffed with Chinese candy and attached to each package. Stacked, the pile of packages looked like a shining city. Special friends (with a sense of the absurd) enjoyed the "scratch 'n' sniff" evergreen-scented paper I found in a Woolworth's.

But a cloud lurks inside the silver lining. You have to resign yourself to the fact that a giftwrap is a fleeting thing, its destruction swift and merciless. But that's the way of the world. It's live fast, die young and leave a beautiful wrapper.