When I began my research for this piece, I thought I was going to write about 10 things you can do to make your Christmas more sustainable and less harmful to the planet. Ideas around renting a living Christmas tree, rather than a cut tree that’s grown for a moment of glittering glory, before being discarded. Or wrapping your carefully bought ethical gifts in a beautiful scarf to be used year on year instead of wrapping paper. Food can be bought locally and sourced ethically. Decorations can be beautifully handmade from pine-cones, holly, ivy and dried orange slices with cloves and cinnamon. But as I wrote those things, I realised that what I really want to say runs deeper than simply trying to replicate what we already have in a more sustainable package.
One of the projects we run at SEEd is supporting schools in a Whole Institution Approach to Sustainability. The idea behind this is to embed sustainability into the very principles the school is run on. It occurs to me that it would be possible to apply this thinking to our mid-winter festival and take a Whole Christmas Approach to Sustainability.
If we are to make changes to the way we celebrate Christmas, it would be good to develop an understanding of the purpose of Christmas – principally associated with birth and renewal. Celebrating a mid-winter solstice festival is an ancient rite with evidence of festivals going back to Neolithic times. The ancient Egyptian god Osiris, the Roman god Sol Invictus and the Greek god Apollo are among many divine entities, include Jesus, whose birth was celebrated around this time.
In its simplest form Christmas could be described as a celebration of resilience through the darkest days. Of hope, family, community and care for each other. Somehow however, in the whirlwind of consumerism at Christmas, the roots of this celebration have been rebranded and packaged up with expectations of delivering the perfect fun-filled, extravagant gift-receiving day of feasting and excess, that bear little resemblance to the foundations of love and community.
Science journalist Jennifer Leman wrote in 2019, ‘When all is said and done on Christmas morning, Jolly St. Nick will have emitted over 69.7 million metric tons of greenhouse gases during the holiday season.’ If we are to move the dial on Climate Change and ecological breakdown, we cannot sit by and allow Christmas to be this harmful, but how do we make the change?
Every year around October time, when I was a little girl, my dad used to suggest we celebrate what he called a ‘brown rice Christmas’. My Sister and I would groan at this, understanding that a ‘brown rice Christmas’ (a term of his own invention) meant going without – no special treats or gifts, no visit from Father Christmas. We never did celebrate a ‘brown rice Christmas’, which always sounded austere and dull, but the principles of a more modest, family and community orientated celebration, have stayed with me.
We all know people who describe Christmas as their least favourite time of the year. Whilst this can be derided as bah-humbug, it cannot be denied that expectations heaped upon Christmas by commercial interests, apply a pressure to the day that can be hard to live up to. Leading up to Christmas the pressure to buy, buy, buy the latest perfect gifts, stylish decorations and indulgent treats can be overwhelming. People on their own or in difficult circumstances can find Christmas particularly challenging when surrounded by the apparent warmth and joy experienced by people on the television, social media and in every shop and magazine available.
Tied into this anxiety over Christmas and wanting to deliver perfection, is also a misconception that living more sustainably must inevitably be tied up with a lower quality of life. That living equitably within the earth’s boundaries will mean giving things up, and this in turn will lead to a lower standard of living. I argue that living sustainably offers a different rather than lower quality of life and that by sharing what we have more equitably and learning to live in harmony with nature we may find the quality of all our lives improving immeasurably.
It’s important however that a Whole Christmas Approach to Sustainability shouldn’t simply be laid at the wreath adorned door of individual households. The economic and consumer machine currently delivering elements for the perfect celebration, need to change. Sellers, suppliers, advertisers, journalists and governments to name just a few of the players, need to examine their part in the story of what makes Christmas and redefine the ingredients with Sustainability at their heart.
In order for the Whole Christmas Approach to Sustianbaility to work, society has to separate two competing interests… celebration and reconnection with community and a shared hope for the coming year, verses the excessive consumerist impulses that are ultimately driven by greed and individualism.
If we are to move towards more Sustainable thinking and practice at Christmas, we must understand and reconnect with its deepest origins which are rooted in the natural world and beautiful yearly cycles.
Christmas has been redrawn in the past, we can redraw it now, for a sustainable future.