If you stopped out of Black Friday, you may be one of the millions of Americans who waits until the last minute to do their Christmas shopping. Maybe economic woes have you tightening your purse strings, or maybe you just don't like to shop. Maybe you'd rather spend time with your loved ones, and are looking for an activity other than spending money that will suit people of any skill level or age. No worries: try origami!

Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper into animals, boxes, insects, and -- well, the list goes on. Since you don't need to cut or glue the paper -- just fold -- this craft is doable for any age (free-form expressions ought not to be discounted). All you need is a square sheet of paper and the know-how, making this the cheapest gift in your holiday arsenal after pine cones collected from the backyard and covered with glitter. By the way, you could have a decorating station, with glitter and paints, for the fold-challenged.

The right paper, patterned and perfectly square, is available at most bookstores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, but it's far better to buy recycled. Savitris sells hand-made recycled paper, and PaperJade has a wide selection of handmade origami paper. You can also create your own folding stock with anything from Netflix envelope flaps to toilet paper, just so long as it's the same length on all sides. (Exception: origami using dollar bills.) Florist paper and old wrapping paper are excellent because they are easy to fold and already have pretty patterns on them.

The easiest shape to make is the envelope. This saves money on Christmas cards and reduces paper waste, because you can write the message on the paper that becomes the envelope.

The most recognizable, and elegant, shape is the crane, another easy pattern, although it doesn't look it. Cranes are a symbol of peace, and over 10 million origami cranes are donated each year to the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan.

Here are directions to folding a butterfly and a little shirt with a dollar bill. Or a bigger bill, if you like. Who knows? A reluctance to unfold the nifty thing may encourage savings.

Origami is great to give and receive. It's small, attractive and handmade, and you can make quite a lot of it relatively quickly once you get familiar with the paper and sink into your origami "zone." But making a loop with a needle and thread, you can easily convert your paper shapes into buoyant holiday ornaments, too.

Arigato, origami!

Story by Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Origami for gifts, decor, togetherness
Relax with a little origami over the holidays. This Japanese craft is great for gift embellishments -- or even actual gifts.