by Theresa Peluso

In the quest to live sustainably, perhaps you’re rethinking how to celebrate important events, such as Christmas, Eid, Hanukkah, Diwali, and the Chinese New Year. Celebrations like these are vital to almost every culture.  They affirm our spiritual beliefs, honour family and cultural traditions, mark special milestones, provide a welcome change from routines, encourage families and friends to spend time together, and give us an opportunity to appreciate good food, fun and friendship.

Along the way, these special days have been commercialised, to the point where they can make or break a retailer’s survival.  According to the National Retail Federation, the world’s largest retail trade association: “For some retailers, the holiday season can represent as much as 20-40% of annual sales.”  The Financial Post (Nov. 19, 2012) reported that in December 2011, Canadian retail sales hit $44.8-billion.  That works out to about $3,350 per household – a lot of money for just one celebration!

If we’re serious about living sustainably, we need to identify our priorities:  good health (which includes meeting our basic needs for water, food, clothing, and shelter), fulfilling relationships, a good education, a satisfying job, a safe and caring community, and opportunities for recreation.  So it follows that if your holiday focuses on these priorities, it will be a huge success. Let’s consider four different areas in connection with Christmas celebrations.

Decorations

The pros and cons of artificial versus natural Christmas trees have already been addressed in Green Talk last December.  As for how to decorate your tree, think natural, biodegradable (or long-lasting) and local.  Pine cones, paper cut-outs, ornaments made by your children or local artisans, are all great options. The child-made decorations and the specially-made ornaments given to you as gifts will become a valuable part of your Christmas memories and traditions. For other decorations in the house, the same applies.  A walk in the woods and a visit to some of the many local craft fairs and bazaars should reward you with some pretty boughs, pine cones, vines, candles, and wreaths. For ribbons and trim, try to use natural materials, such as sisal, hessian and jute.  And if your children are keen to help make these decorations, then you have the bonus of quality family time (unless they start squabbling over the ribbons and pine cones!).

Food

Food is a key part of any celebration. Naturally, we want to enjoy all the traditional dishes, and to mark the significance of the occasion with fancier than usual appetizers, drinks, and desserts.  One thing to watch out for is food waste.  Research by Dr. Ralph Martin (University of Guelph) has shown that more than 50% of the $27 billion in food waste originates from edible food thrown away in Canadian homes. That works out to about $28 per week, or $1,500 per year per household, or 183 kg of wasted food per Canadian. (source: tfpc.to/…/foodwaste-fact-sheet-presented-by-helene-st-jacques-to-the-public, March 19, 2013).

Only buy foods that your family and guests will eat, and in appropriate quantities. Try to buy food produced or processed locally – it has a lower carbon footprint and doing so boosts the local economy. Make sure that any leftover food is quickly packed in containers and refrigerated or frozen. And – make sure you use those leftovers before they spoil.  You can get creative with soups and stir-fries, and bubble-and-squeak (which I  learned about from my British mother-in-law).  Also, when grocery shopping, think of those who will go without – and buy a few extra packages for the Food Bank.  Or you can make a donation to the Shepherds of Good Hope or any organization that strives to provide Christmas dinners for those in need.

One more thing:  When decorating and setting your table, do your part for sustainable living by using reusable plates, tablecloths, decorations, cutlery, glasses and cloth napkins.

Packaging

While it’s true that part of the excitement of getting gifts is anticipating what’s inside that exquisitely wrapped box, it’s rather sobering to think of the following statistics, taken from the Regional District of Nanaimo’s website (www.rdn.bc.ca/cms.asp?wpID=177)‎

In Canada the annual waste from gift-wrap and shopping bags equals about 545,000 tonnes.  If every family in Canada reduced its weekly waste during the holidays by just one kilogram, 34,000 tonnes of garbage would be eliminated.  If everyone in Canada wrapped just three gifts in reused paper or gift bags, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 hockey rinks. (RDN, Nov. 2013)

How can we change these dreadful statistics?  Wrap your gifts in reusable, or previously used materials – and if they’re natural, so much the better. Sisal ribbons, cloth bags, comic pages from the newspaper, reused gift bags, boxes and bows, cookie tins, and functional items such as bath or tea towels (for toiletries or gourmet items) are just some ideas.  Really large items could be stored in a closet, with a clue about the gift and its location enclosed in a pretty envelope under the tree.  At the very least, use gift wrap that’s recyclable – no plasticized or metallic stuff!  Finally, during gift-opening, provide a large bag close to hand for any recyclable packaging, so that it can eventually find its way into the recycling bin.

Gifts

What really makes you happy?  Do you really have to have the latest-model cellphone, 3D television, whatever Princess Kate or Katy Perry was last seen wearing, or another slicer-and-dicer for the kitchen, to meet your needs of survival, love and belonging?  That’s what all the marketers out there would like you to believe.

Once again, we need to think about what really makes us happy in a sustainable way: Good health, fulfilling relationships, a good education, a satisfying job, a safe and caring community, and opportunities for recreation.  You can meet a lot of these needs without spending too much money.

I’m betting that the elderly people in your life don’t need more stuff.  Companionship, though, is probably high on their list.  What about a home-made certificate for a meal at one of their favourite restaurants or tickets to a concert, with your company thrown into the bargain?  Or a commitment to spend an afternoon with them, doing an activity of their choice?

For children, there are many toys or equipment with long-lasting interest and usefulness at a reasonable cost.  Since youngsters grow so fast, second-hand skates, skis, and bicycles make good sense.  Save the new equipment for when they’ve stopped growing.  If your children show a keen interest in a sport or hobby, give them a certificate for those music, skating, or horseback-riding lessons they’ve been asking for.  Unfortunately, children are exposed to, and are particularly susceptible to, advertising by those afore-mentioned clever marketers, and to peer pressure, making it very difficult for parents to withstand the badgering to buy that gimmicky $150 toy.  Perhaps this is an opportunity to steer them in the right direction.

As for making your Christmas Day special, why not organize an after-dinner activity that encourages everyone to socialize?  You can have a talent-sharing time, where people show off their talents in singing or playing an instrument, telling jokes or stories, reciting or acting out poems and monologues, displaying art work, performing magic tricks, or dancing.  Board games, card games, or activities like charades and twenty questions are great entertainment for all age groups, and help to create those fond memories of Christmas and shared fun.

Gifts that encourage creativity, knowledge and skill development, personal time with others, exercise, environmental awareness, and community involvement will be the most satisfying. Gifts of services (a pedicure, golf lessons, restaurant coupons, a gym membership) consume very little of our earth’s resources, and provide a special treat for the recipient. If possible, choose gifts that are produced locally or that are fair trade.  And for those of us who have everything we need, a donation to a charity on our behalf is the way to go.

For Christians, the true meaning of Christmas is love. Regardless of our beliefs, that’s what we all seek.  So let this be our focus.  As Bing Crosby put it, “Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won’t make it ‘white’.”