Christmas, for many, is indeed “the most wonderful time of the year.” It makes us smile just to think about green Christmas trees, colored lights, cooking, and family. It’s a time we give to and express our care for each other, family and strangers alike. This holiday season, we can do more to care for the earth as well. With a few tweaks to our habits and traditions, we can celebrate the environment as well as the season.
Gifts, Wrappings, and Packaging
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans throw away an extra million tons of garbage each week. This garbage includes holiday wrapping and packaging. Just changing the way we give gifts can drastically decrease this massive addition to the landfills.
When you choose gift wrap, look for wrap that is made from recycled materials, and avoid any that is glossy or metallic as these cannot be recycled. Consider forgoing paper wrap all together, and use newspaper, fabric wrap or gift bags, or just brightly colored ribbon or string to decorate gifts. If you find that you can reuse paper or ribbons from gifts given to you, set these aside to use next year.
Not all gifts need wrapping. Most of our holiday memories are not about the gifts, but instead about experiences with friends and family. A home cooked meal or tickets to a basketball game or the theater might be someone’s favorite gift.
If you have gifts to ship to family or friends in another town, find a local store, restaurant or coffee shop they will enjoy, and buy a gift certificate to that place. Many places are happy to mail the gift certificate to you or directly to the recipient, or they can set it aside for someone to pick it up. Send a fun homemade card with instructions to go to the place to pick it up, and you can combine an outing with the gift. You’ll be supporting the local economy while giving someone the opportunity to go somewhere they may have never been before.
To cut down on the number of gifts to buy and the time and expense that goes along with shopping, agree with your family or group of friends before the shopping season begins to put all the adults’ names in a hat, and draw names. The name you draw is your gift recipient. Keep your name a secret to add a little fun and surprise, and then you can focus your energy on finding a thoughtful gift for just that person. In my family, we keep the kids’ names out so they get more gifts. We also have a $20 limit, and this limit forces us all to add just a little more thought to the gift. This practice shifts our focus from gifts to family, and there is far less paper, packaging, and burnt gas driving around looking for perfect gifts for a multitude of people.
To cut down on the fossil fuels needed to transport items and a lot of packaging, look for locally made gifts when possible. Local craft fairs and artisan shops are good sources for such gifts. Did I mention gift certificates for local shops and restaurants? This type of shopping also supports the local economy, so the money stays close to home instead of some corporate headquarters halfway across the country or world.
When shopping for gifts, also consider buying gifts made from recycled sources, gifts without batteries, and even re-gifting. There is a lot of talk around the etiquette of re-gifting, but you can talk with your family and friends and establish a “re-gifting is OK” rule. It is important to not offend the original gifter, so you may decide that regifting is OK as long as the gift did not come from within the group.
The Christmas Tree
While it may seem most responsible to buy a plastic tree and reuse it year after year, many argue that a real tree is much better for the environment. Christmas trees are grown on farms and are replanted regularly. They contribute to the air quality while growing, and at the end of the season, most trees are turned into mulch that ends up returning to the earth. Plastic trees are made of fossil fuels in the form of plastic PVC, and resources are used in their manufacture, shipping, and disposal. They are typically thrown into the landfills after a few years of use make them less attractive.
Many people choose to purchase a small live potted tree to keep inside during the season and then move outside to be part of the landscaping the rest of the year. They can be used for several holiday seasons, especially if repotted occasionally to make room for root growth. When the tree becomes too large, it can be planted in your yard, and you can even continue decorating it over the years as an outside Christmas tree.
When shopping for strings of lights, choose LED lights. They use up to 95% less energy than larger, traditional bulbs, and they will last up to 100,000 hours when used indoors. This can lead to big energy savings as well as environmental savings throughout the season and for years to come. Unplug the lights at bedtime, and you can save even more.
This year, start a new tradition of activities that involve the whole family and give back to the earth. Plan a nature hike for the time between gifts and dinner to get everyone out of the house and away from the TV and new toys. Keep track of birds and other wildlife for interesting conversation and to keep the focus outwards. The fresh cold air and exercise will invigorate everyone and will pique their appetites for the big meal.
Decorate a tree for the birds by spreading peanut butter and seeds over pinecones. Hang the pine cones in the trees among some LED lights, and watch the birds enjoying their holiday meal.
Plan a movie night at home instead of going out. Find something everyone will like via Netflix or Amazon, pop some popcorn, dim the lights, and spread out in your living room together. You will save gas by staying home, and it’s much easier to enjoy family time together in one room than it is sitting in a line in a dark theater.
Food is an area where some just don’t want to break tradition, but perhaps some minor changes can be done to benefit the environment.
When choosing a turkey or ham, look for organic, local, and/or free-range options. Small changes like these can make a big difference to the earth and to the animals. Check out your farmers’ market or local grocery store for organic and local vegetables, and look for bread from a nearby local bakery.
If you’re feeling artistic, create your centerpiece using items from nature. Walk around your neighborhood or yard and look for pine or fir boughs, pine cones, and any flowers that might be blooming.
Although it does create some work, skip the disposable forks, plates, cups and napkins, and use the real stuff. If you don’t have quite enough for everyone, ask others to bring place settings to supplement yours. Washing dishes can be yet another activity that families can do together. Find the two cousins who rarely get to see each other, and put them to work on the dishes. They’ll have time to catch up, and you’ll get a clean kitchen!
Making some of these changes this season will decrease some of your stress, expenses, and impact on the environment. Keep the focus on simplicity and family, and you’ll be creating memories for a lifetime.