How can a celebration that has nothing to do with buying things be returned to values of kindness and care? Can we reclaim not only Christmas but all holidays, both religious and secular, and make them less about ‘stuff’, nicely wrapped in marketing strategies? Surely we can show our love in other ways than just though presents stacked high – under trees soon to be unceremoniously tossed away after a few weeks covered in non-biodegradable tinsel.
In a world dominated by Black Fridays, fast fashion, and fast electronics – in fact, fast unsustainable everything – it’s important to restart the conversation about buying less, and paying greater attention to where we invest our money, time, and resources.
A sustainable festive season (either over Zoom or in real life), with consideration for more than just our immediate household, has the potential to create far more unadulterated joy and happy memories than the ideal promoted by advertisers.
This year, more than ever, we should focus on experiences – and if we can afford it, it’s important to invest our gift budget in the small independent businesses that contribute to vibrant neighbourhoods and thriving communities.
Here are some ideas that could turn the festive season from financially crippling and indiscriminate shopping spree, into an enjoyable experience that hangs some values on the tree – in spite of what the consumerist machine tells us is trendy.
1. Christmas trees: consider the alternatives
You may have childhood memories of fresh fir trees under twinkling lights – which current COVID restrictions may well make you want to splurge to recreate (hopefully you could even use the very same decorations from your childhood).
If the tree is a must, you have plenty of options: from fake ones to fresh rental ones which can be sent back to the forest after the holidays (yes, it’s a thing!), potted ones, ones in front of the house, improvised ones (stacked books), upcycled ones, to funky alternative ones (like this 👇 granny squares example).
To minimise hassle – and to reduce impact completely – this time around, you may even consider going without a traditional tree. Instead, make your biggest potted plant the decorative centrepiece. Or, forage some fallen fir branches from a park, the garden, or local woodland. This way, you get that natural fir scent, but without sacrificing a whole tree.
👉 Choose whatever you fancy – but not before browsing these carefully curated sustainable options.
2. Give (only) books: an Icelandic tradition
Jólabókaflóð, or “Christmas book flood”, is the Icelandic tradition of giving one another only books. When it comes to gifting, this may be one of the most sustainable options. Adding to the appeal, after exchanging the carefully chosen books, family and friends spend the evening reading from them. 📚
This is perhaps unlikely to pan out seamlessly in families not used to the tradition, but there are definitely exciting conversations about those books just waiting to happen. If you’re musical, jamming to carols can prove very successful. With the right skills, you could even perform original songs or new interpretations. And no wrapping required!
3. Make it stuff-free: gift experiences
If you’re trying to avoid buying physical items, consider purchasing services or experiences instead. Admittedly, that’s easier said than done in 2020, but hopefully the coming year will have more to offer, so why not prepare in advance? We’ve written about gifting experiences before, and once music venues and museums reopen, cooking classes move offline, and trains can again cross borders with no restrictions, they’re going to need our support.
4. Imaginative, not expensive giving: try (sustainable) Secret Santa
This is a good start for downsizing, using our imaginations more, and wasting less. Playing Santa like this can be lots of fun on a small budget. There are different potential rules: either secretly pick the name of a family member, colleague, or friend you have to buy a present for. Or, pick a present that would appeal to almost anyone (now there’s a challenge) and then, on Christmas, the guest who draws your name receives the present you prepared.
With a limited budget (£5 or £10), you’ll be forced to be imaginative. Don’t over-sweat it; this isn’t competition, it’s supposed to be fun. I was once part of a no-budget Secret Santa where everyone brought something from their homes – secondhand, but with a story. I still wear the leg warmers I received – and remember the story, too.
You could add other rules too – like only buying independent, organic, or local products. Making presents can be especially fun for kids, who don’t need a budget to be part of the game. Well, kids who’ve already figured out the truth about where presents come from.
With this approach, you receive just one present – but the chances are that this won’t be one you re-gift.
5. Reduce pointless waste: rethink wrapping
Wrapping paper and packaging is all too easy to overlook – unless you like to open your presents neatly, in order to repurpose or reuse that paper. If so, don’t pay attention to those staring; it just means that you know the facts, are great at upcycling, or really dig the pattern. With more than 100 million wrapping paper rolls thrown away at Christmas in the UK alone, it makes sense to find solutions to this pointless waste.
Consider using newspapers, magazine pages, old paper, pieces of fabric – or even no wrapping at all. Write messages on them or make the most of existing printed messages. ❄️
Have a look at this travel agent who uses outdated maps as wrapping paper – maps that would otherwise be destroyed. This toilet paper company wraps its rolls “in delightful designs to make gift wrap or homemade confetti”, while others are selling Knot-Wraps based on Japanese furoshiki (wrapping cloths). “Made from either organic cotton or two recycled plastic bottles […] they’re meant to be used again and again as a scarf, accessory or tote, so it’s a bit like giving two gifts in one.”
Or, go through those unused, damaged clothes in your wardrobe, and get creative! If all fails, you could buy recycled brown wrapping paper – but using your imagination is surely preferable.
6. Wow the family: gift repaired family heirlooms
According to this survey, most people dislike their holiday gifts, and will re-gift, donate, or sell them. On the other hand, not many would be likely to do this with a family heirloom.
You don’t have to be a fan of the BBC’s Repair Shop series – an “antidote to throwaway culture” – to realise the significance of forgotten objects in the family that may be in need of a facelift and a new place in the home. A great-grandparent’s dusty lantern in the attic, a worn leather wallet from a grandfather, or a doll a gran played with as a child: old objects like these carry stories that not only connect us to our past, but have the potential to make memorable gifts. The ensuing storytelling could make the family gathering equally memorable.
Don’t underestimate the power of unearthed heirlooms. Depending on their value, and condition, you could try fixing them yourself, or hand them over to a professional – another essential line of work in need of your support.
7. Donate time or money
Depending on your circumstances, you could agree with your family or friends to have a holiday season where everyone offers a gift to someone in need – acquaintances or otherwise.
This could be a few hours around Christmas spent volunteering with a charity working with homeless people, cooking for a neighbour who can’t do it themselves, calling someone who’s been isolating alone during the lockdowns… Just look around and see where you can lend a helping hand. 🎁
This is nothing new. Remember A Christmas Carol? No need for visitations by festive ghosts to realise that giving where it really matters is what this holiday should be about.
8. Support your community: buy local, shop small
Without heirlooms to repair, and no time (or skill) for painting, carving, sewing, knitting, or baking personalised presents, buy something new or secondhand – but make it local, and preferably independent.
We recommend buying books from small shops or charities in your neighborhood. If, for whatever reason, you have to buy online, try alternative platforms like Hive. After buying from them, you can choose an independent bookshop that will receive a percentage of your money. So, you get your book – while still helping a small business during these hard times.
Same with children’s toys: avoid plastic ones, instead choosing those made from sustainable materials in independent craft shops. Consider games and experiences, too.
👉 This guide to sustainable toys for every season should come in handy.
In 2020, small businesses, independent artists, and neighbourhood shops are suffering the most, and greatly at risk of closing down due to COVID restrictions. This year, if your giving is informed by the state of those around you, it could have a much greater impact than you might imagine.
The above are just a few suggestions, and, as always, we’d love to hear your own ideas and sustainability stories. Hang those LED fairy lights (they consume 90% less power than incandescent bulbs) if you have to, but keep it simple, don’t make waste, party like you intend to keep living on this planet, and be present for your dear ones. Happy holidays!