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Green your Christmas

Tips for a more eco-friendly holiday

By Jennifer McPhee

The Christmas season seems to come and go faster each year. Although it is a religious celebration, we prepare for it by rushing around shopping malls and buying things. We end up with mountains of presents and waste. But in a few short weeks, we can barely remember what we gave or received. How weird is that?

Still, suggest buying fewer presents at Christmas and people often react like you’re putting them on a diet, says Julie Kinkaid, author of Overturning the Tables: Consumerism, Children, and the Church. What you’re really doing is putting meaning and enjoyment back into Christmas. “You’re not depriving yourself,” says Kinkaid, a former United Church of Canada stewardship official. “This is going to make your life better and more fulfilling than it is right now. Give yourself a gift this Christmas: less consumerism.”

Alas, there’s no denying that it takes courage to plan a simpler, more sustainable Christmas, especially if you have children or grandchildren. But don’t despair. It is possible. Read on for tips on how to make it happen.

Lean on your church for support

It’s tough to take a stand against consumer culture. Parents and grandparents need support, and the church can help by starting discussions about why Christmas shouldn’t be about buying stuff, and by asking children to suggest other fun ways to celebrate Christ’s birthday. This will help set the stage for explaining to your kids or grandkids that they will receive fewer gifts this year.

Barbara Fullerton, stewardship development program minister for the United Church, suggests that churches purchase the inexpensive booklet Whose Birthday Is It Anyway? for families with children. Produced annually by Alternatives for Simple Living and edited by The United Church of Canada this year, the resource is full of devotions and ideas for celebrating Christmas in meaningful and Earth-friendly ways. (Go to www.united-church.ca/sales/ucrd.)

Remember that you’re not doing children any favours by allowing them to adopt the values of consumer culture, says Kinkaid. They run the risk of becoming restless, unhappy, selfish adults. And they will eventually have to unlearn those values and relearn different ones in order to be happier and create a better world.

So, think about the shift away from consumerism as giving kids different stuff, not less stuff, she says. “They are getting lessons in faith, lessons in generosity and lessons in being a good person,” she says.

Besides, kids are not as devastated by the idea of getting fewer presents as adults fear, she adds.

I test the waters on my seven-year-old niece by asking her how she’d feel if I purchased a goat for a family in a poor country instead of buying her a Christmas present. Immediately, she fears for the goat’s wellbeing. How would I feel if I were the goat? she demands to know. Donating money so more children can go to school is a better choice, she decides, before quickly moving on to another topic.

Collaborate with kids

Instead of imposing your ideas for celebrating Christmas more ethically on your kids, involve them in the process of deciding how to spend the family’s time and money, say experts. This will make the experience more meaningful for them.

Sit down with your children, explain what your Christmas budget is and create a Christmas list together, says Kinkaid. Include a church or a charity on the list, along with services your family can offer to others, she suggests.

When Barbara Fullerton’s children were young, her family wrote ideas about things they could do together on little scrolls, which they pasted on a banner and opened up during the 12 days before Christmas.

Each day, the family embarked on one of these adventures, like bringing homemade jam to an elderly person or making a surprise long-distance phone call to a relative, says Fullerton.

Fullerton also knows of a couple who bring their grandchildren to volunteer at several different charities before Christmas. Afterward, they tell the children they are donating a portion of their gift money to one of these charities. The children get to choose the charity and help deliver the cheque, says Fullerton. “It has such a huge impact on those kids,” says Fullerton. “I think it’s a really cool idea.”

Start dreaming of a green Christmas

Most people are going to buy some presents at Christmas; the most important thing is to think about what you’re buying, say experts. For example, Fullerton makes her decisions about gift-buying at Christmas by considering the impact of her actions on the environment, on other people and on the recipients of the gift, who may not need or even want it.

To give people the opportunity to think more carefully about what they’re buying, some churches are starting to host green-themed Christmas bazaars. Along with selling fair-trade, eco-friendly and recycled treasures at West Hill United’s bazaar this year, members of the Scarborough, Ont., church also made their own jam, relish, antipasto and other preserves from local ingredients, which they packaged and sold in reusable jars, says Trish Bower, the church’s part-time program co-ordinator.

St. Andrew’s River Heights United in Winnipeg held a similar event this year. The church invited local low-income residents with small businesses to sell their wares; sold fair-trade crafts from Ten Thousand Villages (www.tenthousandvillages.ca); and offered shoppers the chance to purchase charitable gifts from a catalogue produced by the Winnipeg Presbytery for all the community ministries in Winnipeg.

In recent years, making a charitable gift in honour of someone else has become popular. The United Church of Canada collects online donations for a wide variety of projects both local and international, says Fullerton, and the church sends a card to people when a donation is made in their name. At home in Toronto, Fullerton makes her own certificates, wraps them up like presents and invites the recipient to choose how to spend the donation.

Reconsider wrapping paper and cards

There’s no denying that wrapping paper is a waste of precious resources. Buying something just to throw it out days later? Bizarre. Skip this custom altogether by giving a perishable item, such as herbed oils, which come in attractive reusable containers, suggests Deborah Knuckey, author of Conscious Spending for Couples. Or tie a single ribbon around a wine bottle and write “Merry Christmas” on a homemade tag with a nice pen. Instead of buying a paper gift bag at the dollar store, wrap bulkier items in reusable shopping bags from your local grocery store.

When it comes to cards, send e-cards, buy cards from a charity or send cards made from recycled paper. Also, think about whether you really need to send Christmas cards to everyone you know, says Knuckey. “People I see every week send me a card, and I feel obliged to send them one back,” she says. “Honestly, I don’t need an update on their kids because I saw them two weeks ago.”

Get the ball rolling

If the idea of cutting back drastically on presents still feels a tad unrealistic, get the ball rolling this year by simply crossing a few more people off your list.

Most people will be secretly thrilled when you broach this subject because they don’t want to buy you anything either, says Knuckey. Instead, suggest making a group donation to a charity or getting together to swap stuff you already have.

If you’re looking to buy less landfill-clogging stuff but don’t want to forego gifts altogether, consider purchasing more experiential gifts such as tickets to a hockey game or concert. Thoughtful gifts of service are also likely to make a lasting impression. Offer to babysit or repair something for a friend, suggests Margaret Fay, the designated “green enthusiast” at St. Matthew’s United in Halifax and author of a workbook about climate change. When entertaining, avoid disposable dishes by picking up extra dishes at yard sales throughout the year or by renting dishes, she adds. And decorate your tree with natural things like popcorn and cranberries. “You can get your whole family involved in doing something like that,” she says.

After all, it’s the seemingly insignificant family traditions — like stringing popcorn together — that people love about Christmas. The more time you spend at the mall, the less time you spend creating memories that make us who we are. “We are so often worn to a frazzle by the extra time we spend shopping,” laments Fullerton. “Is it really ethical or even joyful to be so frantic?”

Jennifer McPhee is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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