Non-Electric Christmas, & Other Holidays, Too

Regardless of whether or not we are celebrating Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or the Winter Solstice, the question remains, how can we balance our love of the holidays and celebration with responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources? In the spirit of our organization’s motto, “Conserve, Create, Communicate”, we have compiled a list of suggestions to make gift giving and decorating a little more environmentally, & economically, friendly. All of these suggestions have been tried by our staff or supporters. If at first glance they don’t seem to fit your lifestyle, add some creative modifications, and they should work for you!
Please feel free to add your own environmentally friendly and sustainable ideas to our offerings, by logging on to our website. And from our homes to yours, we wish you Happy Christmas, and all of the special blessings of the season!
1)      Give gifts in re-useable containers, rather than wrapping them in paper, plastic wraps or foils. Colorful metal tins, baskets, canvas totes, re-useable shopping bags, towels, sheets, & pillowcases can serve as attractive wrappings that have a life of their own after the gift has been opened. While most of the mentioned items are easily biodegradable, pottery or glass bowls, plastic storage bins or even trash cans can be used as well.

2)      Besides the traditional fruit cakes, homemade candies, fruit & baked goods, consider giving gifts of food or unusual specialty items that may have been cut from budgets in these difficult economic times. Organic foods, meats, teas, coffee, wine, olive oil, and other higher end food items may have been sacrificed and a gift of these items would be used and appreciated. (I tested this idea one day when I met a group of people in a local discount store discussing coffee. They were strangers to each other, but were united by a common grief: the loss of their usual coffee due to economic disaster. These fine folks were gathered forlornly in front of a large display of very low end coffee, trying to decide how low to go. When asked if they’d be offended by receiving a supply of their favorite brew for Christmas, the answer was unanimous!)

3)      During financial hard times, pet owners may face heart breaking choices. Pet supplies, food or kitty litter can be a functional gift. Animal spaying & neutering certificates, vet & pet supply gift certificates, or taking someone’s pets to the annual discount pet clinic day can be a huge help to someone with a shrinking budget & no time to take advantage of discounted deals. Enabling someone to keep their pet, happy & healthy is a wonderful, lasting gift. It also decreases stress during these difficult times.

4)      Consider giving gifts of time or service. Car washing, house cleaning, laundry/dry cleaning, childcare or lawn care are wonderful gifts. If you can afford to hire a cleaning team or purchase a car wash certificate, share the wealth with others. But if not, you might perform the service yourself. Skills & specialty areas can also be offered. A computer geek might offer to tweek a website or teach Grandma how to Youtube.

5)      Consider giving “experiences” or day trips to unusual places. Many people have cut back or eliminated their yearly vacation, and help with entertaining the family is appreciated. Trips to aquariums, zoos, amusement parks, science centers, observatories, conservatories, farms, museums, or a trip to a historical site like Colonial Williamsburg can provide a needed break for a stressed out family. Train or boat rides can also be affordable alternatives. Short, day trips support local economies and use less energy.

6)      While artificial Christmas trees can be stored & reused for several years, they cannot be recycled & eventually end up in a land fill. The purchase of live trees, whether cut or with a root ball, supports local tree farmers & growers. While they are growing the help replenish our atmosphere. Live trees with roots can be planted and returned to the environment to help counteract the effects of deforestation. Cut live trees can have several uses. After Christmas, take your live tree into a recycle center to be chipped up for mulch, or if you have a chipper, you can mulch it yourself. Some trees can be submerged in lakes & ponds to provide habitat for small fish, but check with local Game & Fish regulations to see if this practice is allowed in your area. And make sure all ornaments, wires, hooks, tinsel & inorganic material are removed.

7)      Bird lovers can try this in areas where neighbors are tolerant. After Christmas, select a site near a birdfeeder. Then place the live cut tree in a heavy cast iron tree stand or, bury the end of the trunk in the ground so that it stands erect. The tree will provide additional cover for birds that visit the feeders & protects them from predators. The wind break enables them to burn less energy maintaining their body heat on cold, snowy nights. While the tree will slowly lose its needles during the winter, (some faster than others,) some may stay green & attractive until Spring. Then the trees can be chipped & composted.

8)      Create your own Christmas tree from the gifts you are planning to give. By choosing some of the re-useable containers mentioned in item 1, you can build your own tree. Then on during Christmas, it will gradually disappear as you give out the gifts. Santa Claus can create one in a night if he is clever & thoughtful! We have pictures of Christmas trees made from recycled tins, but many containers, including baskets, plastic bins, & wooden cheese boxes can be cleverly used for the purpose. Use double sided sticky tape, magnets, (if there are no small children) or wood/cardboard discs under each layer, to stabilize large stacks of containers.

9)      Create a Christmas tree from canned or packaged specialty food items. This tree will need large support discs to remain safe & is not a tree for children. Support discs can be cut from wood, metal, or any rigid material that is thick & strong enough to support weight of several cans. Round discs are cut with various diameters in graduated sizes, large enough to support a layer of canned goods or food items. Larger cans, like coffee cans, go on the bottom, with cans getting progressively smaller towards the top. Small cans like tuna, water chestnuts, or mandarin oranges, will be on the top. “Trees” can also be built from boxed food items like cereal, noodles, mac & cheese, crackers. etc.
Distributing these items can be done in several ways. Layers of the tree, or individual, favorite items can be labeled & given to specific persons. Or a game can be made of the process, where each adult person is given 30 -45 seconds to select items they want without collapsing the structure.  You will think of other ideas. Again, not a project for children!

10)  When entertaining consider using glasses & dishes rather than paper products. Or at least, research in your area which is less harmful to the environment: plastic & styro going to a land fill, or water use to wash dishes. Where I live, we have our own water, (for the moment), & it is always more cost effective & environmentally sound to wash dishes by hand. But that might not be the case in all areas.
A favorite around here is vintage snack plates & cups from the 1950’s. They are portable at parties, they keep portion sizes reasonable, & are inexpensive, at least in our area. They are also easy to wash up & don’t make a formidable mess if I decide to leave them until morning.
If you cannot stand the idea of washing dishes, here are several strategies. Resurrect the vintage practice of having guests into the kitchen to assist with clean-up. This can be fun, for as the Amish & others say, “Many hands make quick the work,” & can enable the hostess to clear up in a timely way & still be a part of conversations. Clean-up teams can be formed, with each team given a time of fifteen minutes to wash as many dishes as possible during that time, (or load a dishwasher, etc.) The team that does the most wins! If you plan to use this strategy, have small prizes ready for the winning team. Or plan to wash dishes/clean-up with someone who needs some extra, quality time. Conversation about difficult or sensitive topics can come easier during shared tasks. If none of these appeal to you, clean-up can be left for the following day, if you are not compulsive & can stand the mess for a few hours.  This allows you to focus upon your guests.
11)  For those who celebrate Christmas, consider celebrating the Twelve Days. This is a stress management tip, which is important during the holidays for all of the obvious reasons. Not so obvious is the fact that when we are stressed, we are less thoughtful, make more choices impulsively & as a result, can cause more environmental harm than we might otherwise do. For example, the decision to use disposable plates, utensils, etc. is usually made for convenience to decrease work (& so stress), when entertaining large groups of holiday visitors. At these times people who might normally wash their dishes may resort to plastics instead.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, immortalized in the favored carol, refer to the Christmas season, or Christmastide. The associated evenings of those twelve days (Twelve-tide), are the festive days beginning on Christmas Day, December 25th and ending on the evening of the Twelfth Day of Christmas (January 5th). Thus, the first night of Christmas is December 25–26 and Twelfth Night is January 5-6.  The day after Twelfth Night is Epiphany on January 6. Currently, the 12 days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas Night, some only on Twelfth Night and some each of the 12 nights.
I was exposed to various, Twelve day customs through military life & after my divorce, I embraced them fully as a way to cope with the child sharing issues that arise between ex’s, grandparents, & significant others during the Christmas season. It was impossible to fit everything gracefully into one day, so I have been an avid promoter of the 12 days ever since.
With the 12 days, I was able to take control of my holiday. I could explain the practice, & then assign a day to each grandparent or relative who wanted to see us. This restored family to its rightful place as a blessing, rather than a curse. It had the added benefit of not overwhelming my young daughter with too much stuff at one time. The gifts & givers were not compared, incompatible people were not thrown together against their will, and the past did not resurrect its “ugly” head, so no one was offended. Competition for my daughter’s attention was minimized.
The stress was reduced tremendously. I no longer worried if arguments would break out between feuding grandparents or ex’s of ex’s. There were more gatherings but responsibility was shared more efficiently & they were smaller. The result was an increase in quality interactions, rather than more of the superficial small talk that results in large gatherings when some are trying so hard to keep the peace. That type of artificial, social interaction meets no one’s needs. Instead, my daughter interacted with her relatives in ways that enabled her to actually remember them. They became individuals she knew & loved, rather than a part of an annual blur of big people faces.
We still choose to spread out the gifts over the twelve days, with one gift given each day until they run out. Some years when gifts exceed the Twelve days, we open any remaining gifts on Epiphany, Jan.6th. One great advantage to this practice is that after Christmas sales can be a source of bounty. Usually, I wait until after Christmas to purchase the majority of our gifts. And I save money. Once I bought all of my granddaughter’s gifts on Boxing Day at 75% off! That year we spent several days together instead of the hotly contested one, & everyone was richer for it.
We discovered that by the time the 12 days were over, we had really enjoyed the season. Gone are the Boxing Day blues, the depressing “let down” I used to feel on the 26th of December when after all of the hard work, preparation & hoopla, everything seemed to be over. With the 12 days, the focus seemed to shift from stuff back to people. All it needed was a little more time.
And how does all this relate to the environment? Smaller gatherings meant that I was less tempted to use plastic stuff & I had the extra time to wash napkins, tablecloths & dishes.
I also had time to explain my unusual gift wrappings. In more intimate settings, my shopping bag, baskets, or pillowcase coverings did not clash with the elaborate ribbons & papers of others. There was time to explain WHY I had used a container rather than traditional wrapping paper, & with talk, my behavior became reasonable rather than eccentric. Having the time to explain, which doesn’t happen in large groups, I was able to impress environmetal concepts upon the minds of others, & several people have become converts, either to the practice of the 12 days, or of using less stuff, (paper products, styro cups) during the holidays.
Please realize that lifestyle changes are never easy & to conserve resources, we may have to change our ways of doing things, even if it is inconvenient.
      And best wishes for the holiday season however you celebrate!