Created with the generous support of Greenvelope.
It’s Christmas morning in my childhood home. Presents are torn open, their shiny mangled wrappings strewn across the room along with ribbons and boxes. Christmas cards from family members and friends hang on the wall broadcasting annual greetings via glittery paper and stamps. The tree is bright with lights, store bought candy canes, and ornaments. After breakfast, my family will drive over to my grandparents’ house for even more presents and a meal. These are the holiday traditions of my youth.
Traditions are important because they connect people to behaviors or beliefs with origins in the past. The word "tradition" derives from the Latin word tradere which literally means to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping. While the traditions my family carried out during the holidays were a mix of cultural and familial rituals, the purpose behind them is what truly connected us. The giving of presents is a tradition in service to the spirit of giving, decorations signal celebrations, cards are a means of communication, and meals prepared and eaten together promote intimacy and fellowship.
As sacred as traditions may seem, holidays are not exempt from my quest for a more sustainable existence. It's healthy to question the usefulness and purpose of rituals as we learn and as our circumstances change. If a tradition you participate in is stressing you out, making you feel uncomfortable, or is no longer a part of your identity, I urge you to communicate your concerns with your friends or family. By doing so in my own family, we have simplified holidays to encompass simply time, travel, and meals together. Below are some traditional holiday rituals and suggestions for creating fresh new traditions that are simpler and more sustainable.
The Tradition: Holiday CARDS
I used to send yearly holiday cards which served as annual check-ins with far away family members and friends. While this ritual may keep the post office busy, the paper (which requires water, energy, and other resources) was sent and recycled within a month. In addition, the glitter, paint, and other decorations on holiday cards mean they are often not even recyclable. The amount of resources that go into even post-consumer recycled paper is not sustainable given the short amount of time we keep and enjoy the cards. Thanks to technology, we can now digitally send holiday cards — no paper required. While the vehicle may have changed from analog to digital, the tradition of connection with family members remains the same.
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The New Traditions
1. Take a family photo together and send it out via an e-card.
2. Send e-invites to your holiday parties and easily manage RSVPs.
3. Give a Greenvelope membership as a gift to your most hospitable friend.
The Tradition: MEALS
Building new zero waste traditions around cooking and baking should feel natural since many of our holidays center around meals. Even if the foods change, the fellowship of coming together around a table does not. Cut down on packaging waste by buying in-season, local foods and making dishes from scratch. Reduce post-holiday meal waste by freezing leftovers or packing them up for guests to take home.
Big family celebrations can be stressful enough without leaving stacks of dishes and linens to be done. I get it. But instead of looking at it as a chore, see cleaning up as another activity to do together as a family. Those who don’t cook can do the clean up. Kids can help load the dishwasher, put away clean items, or fold napkins. At the end of the meal, remember to compost and recycle waste.
The New Traditions
5. Put together pre-dinner snacks of nuts, chocolate, granola, and dried fruit made from foods available in bulk bins.
6. Reduce meat consumption by upping the number of savory side dishes, like this cauliflower puree with sauteed mushrooms.
7. Use real tableware and linens.
8. Using scrap paper, create a chore list or choose a chore out of a hat so everyone knows where to pitch in.
9. Have everyone bring containers to the meal to take leftovers home in.
THE TRADITION: DECORATIONS
Garland, ornaments, centerpieces, lights — holiday decorations signal times of celebration, but can be a source of a lot of waste. Achieve zero waste by switching to decorations made of natural materials which you can compost or recycle after the holidays.
Real Christmas trees are by far preferable to artificial ones. One life cycle assessment of both real and artificial Christmas trees revealed that one must use an artificial Christmas tree at least 20 years to leave an environmental footprint as small as a natural Christmas tree. If you have a yard, consider buying a living tree and planting it to decorate outside next year. If you buy a real tree for indoors, switch to a sustainably raised organic tree (look for them at your local farmer’s market or tree farm) and after Christmas check with your city’s recycling program for a pickup day or drop off location for tree mulching. If you’re crafty, DIY your own unconventional tree from wood pallets, cardboard, or any number of materials. Alternatively, Jubilitree and Possibilitree both sell wooden trees while Cardboard Christmas sells options made from recycled cardboard.
The New Traditions
10. Gather and decorate with found objects or natural materials like fruits, pine cones, branches, wreaths, and flowers.
11. Look for sustainable alternatives to standard holiday items: menorah candles made of soy instead of paraffin wax (a petroleum byproduct); mica and flower petals can stand in for conventional glitter which does not biodegrade.
13. Be unconventional in your Christmas tree choice (sustainable, plantable, cardboard, or wood).
14. Return to the tradition of trimming your tree with dried fruit, apples, and other foods to nibble on (or make fragrant cinnamon ornaments, which can be composted). Make garland and ornaments out of newspaper and use paper tape to keep them together so you can recycle them when you are done.
15. Plan a day to “undecorate” together after the holidays. Make snacks, listen to music, and responsibly recycle or compost your leftover waste.
THE TRADITION: GIFTS
A few years ago, I asked my family if we could rethink the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas time. We all agreed that the most important part of the season for us was spending time together. Now instead of giving gifts, we put our money and energy into holiday planning, cooking, and traveling.
If your family wants to continue the tradition of gifts, that’s great too. The gifts are in service to the spirit of giving, so no matter what you receive, the important part is that someone took the time to select and wrap something just for you. Whether it is homemade, bought new, or an experience, the spirit of giving remains intact.
The New Traditions
17. Give local produce or foodstuffs from farmers markets and roadside stands. Create a basket made up of organic seasonal fruits like oranges, pomegranates, and apples; add herbs, flowers, or pine branches to create a centerpiece as a host gift.
18. Show your love by creating your own gifts. Mix up tea blends, can veggies or jam, mull some wine, knit a blanket with recycled yarn, or create beauty products using common ingredients like salt, sugar, and coconut oil.
19. Buy flowers or plants from a florist on slowflowers.com.
20. Support local agriculture by gifting a membership to a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which provides locally-grown produce year-round.
21. Give of your own skills (photograph the holiday, play music, babysit, knit, bartend, etc).
22. Pool your money so everyone can travel to be together.
23. Opt out of expensive holiday travel and take a trip together another time of year.
24. Get active and go ice skating or on a hike as a family.
25. Look for kids’ toys made from materials like cloth, wood, bamboo, or cardboard, or just give them experience gifts too.
THE TRADITION: Gift WRAPPING
Over the holidays, about 227,000 miles worth of wrapping paper get thrown away — much of it unrecyclable because it's dyed, laminated, or contains non-paper additives. You can make your wrappings zero waste by getting creative and upcycling the paper you already have around the house, or buy reusable or recyclable options.
The New Traditions
26. Use existing materials like bags, newspaper, packing materials, magazines.
27. Tie up packages with scrap fabric strips, twine, or ribbon. Or use natural materials like twine, branches, and leaves.
28. Have a wrapping party to pool all of your leftover paper and notions.
30. Buy sustainably made gift wrap like Wrappily, which is printed on local newspaper presses.
Consider this: the volume of household waste in the United States generally increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – about 1 million extra tons. But the holidays don’t have to be synonymous with waste. Rethinking and simplifying our traditions can reduce waste, which will help us all have a little peace on earth.