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What is a truly sustainable Christmas?
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Pass it on
I'm reading
What is a truly sustainable Christmas?
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
What is a truly sustainable Christmas?
Pass it on
Pass it on
14 December 2017

What is a truly sustainable Christmas?

Katerina Cosgrove shares some ideas about how to celebrate sustainably.

Written by Katerina Cosgrove

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

Image by CBX via Unsplash

Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, urges us gently: “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”

This to me is at the crux of a truly sustainable Christmas. Only to the extent that we can be open to those in our families, in our communities and our entire planet, can we realise what it is to celebrate the festive season sustainably, and live with grace and solidity.

In my typical 1970s’ Sydney childhood, Christmas meant plastic toys, tired excess and crumpled wrapping paper scattered over the floor. By contrast, my mother’s 1940s’ upbringing in a Greek village signposted another type of Christmas. There, American concepts of Santa and presents hadn’t yet arrived. Children chorused under a night sky, their Eastern descants nothing like the carols I knew. The village church glowed, lit by beeswax candles. I’m not idealising the past here, merely looking at another way of being at Christmas, a way we can appreciate and learn from.

Today, Christmas seems to be all about objects: finding them, buying them, giving them away, getting them. Yet, there are other ways to celebrate—here are some ideas:


Gifts are, for many, the most anxiety-inducing aspect of Christmas. When everyone feels obliged to buy something for everyone else because it is Christmas, the joy of spontaneous giving and being thoughtful with our gift giving is gone.

Image by Dmitry Mashkin via Unsplash

Don’t buy anything new

Choose homemade and secondhand gifts—both beautiful and useful. Get in the kitchen and make ferments, herbed salts, spices, baked goods, jellies, jams, floral teas. Grow herbs or flowers in pots to give. Learn from our ancestors.

Avoid plastic

In George Monbiot’s 2012 article The Gift of Death, he notes that only percent of bought items are still in use six months after sale. Imagine the amount of plastic junk which goes into landfill each Christmas.

Re-gift special items

Learning to let go of small things is good training for letting go of the bigger things. Books, clothes, jewellery, knick-knacks—someone else may appreciate them more than we do.

Give to charity

Pool the money that would have gone into buying presents and donate to a charity.

Use cloth wrapping

Wrapping paper can be made from interesting cloth, recycled gift-wrap from last year and op shop scarves. Furoshiki, the Japanese art of cloth wrapping is a fun technique to learn.

The Christmas tree

Next comes the Christmas tree debate. Real or plastic? I’ve heard less than convincing arguments from both sides. When I was a child, the plastic Christmas tree would come out on the first day of December. We lived in a cold, south-facing flat, but around Christmas time a slender ray of early morning light would pierce the top of the tree with gold. That was Christmas to me—the arrival of that fragile brilliance. Up until last year, my husband lugged home a huge, fragrant, expensive Christmas tree. But which is more sustainable? It turns out, neither. So how about none at all? Driftwood branches make lovely Christmas trees, as does a tree already growing in your garden. My daughter makes decorations for the tree at our home from found items in nature: vines twisted into wreaths, shells, spinifex seed-heads hanging from satin ribbon.

Christmas meals

The excesses of Christmas indulgence seem to recur—like indigestion—each year. Consider local produce, preferably organic. Another thing to think about is food miles—source your Christmas fare from farmer’s markets, community gardens or your own veggie patch.

Remember, the feasting of a traditional Christmas harks from a time when food was scarce, especially sugar and animal protein. Keep this in mind and prepare a light, summery, conscious celebration of the season. Make as much as you can from scratch, and involve the whole family and friends in baking and preparing.

Image by Hermes Rivera via Unsplash

Spiritual sustainability

Deeper and more difficult than material sustainability is the practice of spiritual sustainability. For a friend of mine, this means no screens or phones on Christmas Day. For another family, it means a talking stick, so everyone gets a turn to speak. For a few, it means no fights for one day. For my family, spiritual sustainability means slowing down. Christmas Day can herald a respite from responsibilities, worries and everyday concerns. It can allow connection and repose.

We sit in a circle before Christmas lunch and sing carols—both religious and secular—together. Surprisingly, there was quite a bit of resistance to this in the first year from our extended family, but they settled into it. My daughter recites poems, we each read out a significant passage we find inspiring or thought-provoking. And we take the time to stop and look into each other’s eyes.

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