A red and white train wooden reusable advent calendar with doors for each day.

A Green Christmas: Eco-Friendly Christmas ideas

Christmas is upon us already (how did that happen???). It seems like only yesterday I was writing the original version of this post, but a whole year has whizzed by. Now fully updated with new ideas for 2019, let me share a few of my family’s favourite eco-friendly Christmas tips to help you and your loved ones make it a green Christmas this year. 

Christmas is a time for family and friends, terrible music (that I secretly love), kindness to others (hopefully we do this year round but this time of year certainly brings out the Christmas cheer between strangers), and, sadly, a whole lot of over-indulgence! Let’s try to minimise the already huge impact of the holiday season on the planet by committing to less waste, less ‘stuff’ and more considered purchases.

Reusable advent calendars

Traditional chocolate calendars might be the easy option to just chuck in the trolley at the supermarket but they’re made of plastic, the chocolates often come individually wrapped in non-recyclable foil, and well, for reasons I won’t go into here, I don’t believe that supplying young children with chocolate every morning is the most productive way to countdown to Christmas or enjoy the festive period. I know, I know, bah Humbug! 

Before you go calling social services to report me for being a ‘mean mummy’, let me introduce you to the reusable advent calendar. Ours is a wooden train, with little doors for each day. Behind each one I place a little piece of paper with a Christmassy activity written on it for us to do that day. We spend the month of December doing all sorts of Christmas themed crafts, baking, outings and games, and it’s lovely. Of course, if you wanted to put chocolate behind each door, you could. 

I have also seen large wall-hanging style calendars with pockets, and little socks knitted and strung together by parents much craftier than me containing 24 books or small gifts. These ideas sound lovely too, but a nice activity for the day works well for us.

Eco-friendly Christmas game, Pin the Nose on Rudolph, could be part of your green Christmas
Pin the Nose on Rudolf! I include this simple family game in our advent calendar. It's sure to get laughs from everyone (even if they are just laughing at my Rudolf)!
A red and white train wooden reusable advent calendar with doors for each day.
A reusable advent calendar can kick start your eco-friendly Christmas on December 1st.

Eco-friendly wrapping and gift tags

Many people are surprised to learn that most wrapping papers cannot be recycled. Those that are dyed, laminated, metallic and/or decorated in glitter, foil and plastics are headed straight for landfill (that’s most of them!). In 2017, it was reported that the U.K. alone would throw away 108 million rolls of wrapping paper and 40 million rolls of sticky tape! This year, you could try one of these alternatives to help keep all that waste out of landfill.

1

Reuse gift bags and paper that have been given to you. You can also hang on to any packaging paper you get sent through the year and if you still buy print newspapers, you can reuse these.

2

Furoshiki (aka fabric wrapping). This takes a little investment because obviously you need to have a supply of fabric, but it doesn’t have to be super expensive and you can spread the cost out over the year. Charity shop scarves and clothes work a treat, but if you want something more Christmassy, fabric and craft shops often stock organic cotton in a range of lovely, vibrant prints.

3

Use compostable or recyclable alternatives (ordinary brown paper is perfect for this) and add a festive touch. Last year, I chose to tie my brown paper packages with green and red raffia and, since we’ve moved house and have ample brown paper used during the move, I will be doing the same this year. You could also try adding pine cones, rosemary or fir as natural decorations. If you or the kids are feeling crafty, you might like to make a decoration that can then be used on the recipient’s tree (I’m no good at knitting or crochet, but I can make a mean salt dough!).

4

Make the wrapping part of the gift. Scarves, cotton to turn into beeswax wraps, tea towels, clothes or socks, muslins, sandwich bags…the possibilities are endless, and what fun having a present in a present! 

5

When it comes to gift tags, you can incorporate this into your natural or homemade decoration. Write directly on to the salt dough or on to fallen leaves collected from the garden, or by stitching a name into your knitted decoration. You could also cut tags out of brown paper, or, if you get sent Christmas cards, before you throw them away at the end of the Christmas period, cut sections out of them to save for next year’s gift tags. Instead of sticky tape, try using recyclable paper tape, string or raffia.

Gifts wrapped in brown paper and tied with green and red raffia. Gift wrapping that can be recycled or composted.
Simple brown paper and raffia wrapping. Everything here can be recycled or composted, or saved and reused as wrapping or for craft activities.

Cards

As a child, I remember my parents being sent enough cards to decorate the bannisters and hang as bunting all around the living room. Now, Alex and I get sent maybe three or four cards each year. It seems that with the rise of the internet and world-wide communication being easier (and cheaper) than ever, my generation will likely be the last to see this tradition, and thank goodness! They’re costly, the emissions used to transport them all over the globe has an obvious environmental impact, I dread to think how many trees are destined to end up as cards each year, and most cards can’t even be recycled. Instead…

  • Why not donate the money you would ordinarily spend on cards and stamps to your favourite charity?
  • Or spend the money on a Christmas box for your local homeless shelter?
  • Or on food to donate to a local food bank?

Of course, the tradition of catching up with friends and relatives, and letting people know that you’re thinking of them during the festive season, is a nice one and I don’t think it should be neglected. Perhaps there are individuals on your Christmas card list that don’t use the internet so snail mail and a good old fashioned phone call is the only way to stay in touch. Perhaps you know that receiving a card will be of significant importance to some people. Whatever the reason, if you don’t feel able to forgo cards altogether, here are a couple of alternative suggestions for the select few you may still wish to send something to:

1

Send an e-card to those who use email. Yes, they’re pretty cheesy, but if the aim is to connect with people and let them know you’re thinking of them, job done! This is also a great option for people travelling who aren’t at a fixed address, and for kids (what child doesn’t love an animated card set to music?!).

2

Make your own cards that can be composted or at least recycled. This is what we do for the handful of people we know would appreciate a card in the post, particularly since we have spent the last two years away from our relatives and friends in the U.K..

Theo picks out a festive design from a quick online search, (while little, this has usually been hand/foot-print related, but as he gets older and his artistic skills expand beyond scribbles, he’ll have more creative freedom to do as he chooses for cards) and we use compostable paint and paper to recreate it. Remember that if you decorate with ordinary paint and crayons, glitter, stickers etc, it cannot be recycled or composted.

3

Send a traditional letter, nothing but pen and paper that can easily be recycled once it has been read.

A homemade Christmas card and homemade decorations.
Last year's homemade Christmas card.

Zero-waste Christmas crackers

Homemade zero-waste Christmas crackers.
Last year's homemade crackers. Fun to make, fun for the family to pull and zero-waste.

A beloved tradition for many, but, like party bags for birthdays, they are wasteful, full of plastic tat that gets swept straight into the bin, and the card used to make them can’t be recycled thanks to plastic laminate and plastic decorations such as glitter and bows. So, what are the alternatives? My homemade Christmas crackers went down a treat last year. They’re very simple to make, they’re (almost, with the exception of the centre of the snap) waste-free, and although they may not look as fancy as shop bought ones, they have everything you need for a good Christmas cracker: a bang, a joke, a hat and a present that won’t get chucked!

I made hats out of tissue paper, wrote out some suitably awful jokes on little pieces of paper, and bought everyone a small, personal gift that I knew they would use and appreciate. I put all that inside an empty toilet roll and threaded a cracker snap through. I then wrapped the whole lot in tissue paper, used a tiny piece of paper tape to secure the middle and tied the ends with raffia. Ta Dah! Homemade zero waste crackers! You can also buy reusable crackers and low waste ones but I haven’t tried any of these so I can’t vouch for them.

Sustainable gifts

Yes, it is lovely to both give and receive gifts, but it’s pointless if the gift isn’t well thought out for the person that’s receiving it. Don’t be the giver of a gift that sits unused at the back of the cupboard. Instead of braving the overcrowded shopping malls in the run up to Christmas, why not instead try to think of zero waste gifts this year. You could:

1

Give an experience: days out, event tickets, restaurant vouchers, lessons in something the individual has been wanting to try.

2

Give a membership or subscription: perhaps a museum or gallery membership, membership to a sports centre or other hobby club, a subscription to an online or print magazine (if you go for print, try to select one that both ticks the right boxes for the individual so that it actually gets read, and has environmentally friendly production methods – look for those printed on recycled paper, with low carbon manufacturing, and that absolutely do not send their magazines out covered in plastic!).

3

Give something homemade: craft, bake, upcycle furniture. If you’re not that way inclined, perhaps you have other skills you could share as a gift? Painting and decorating? Hairdressing? Make-up and nails? Photography?

4

Give an online gift: an online course, a kindle book, an e-book.

5

If you want to buy something material, consider whether it can be bought second hand, and if not, purchase ethically. You might like to consider the following questions:

  • How has the item been manufactured?
  • Has the manufacturing process upheld the highest standards of both environmental and social ethics?
  • What materials have been used to make it?
  • Are the materials sustainable and will they pollute the environment?
  • Have animals or humans suffered at all so that you can purchase this item?
  • Can you buy this item locally from an independent retailer?

The Christmas meal

Food shopping

Buy local, buy seasonal, buy sustainably farmed and only buy what you need. Since moving to New Zealand, our Christmas meal has changed drastically! Sprouts aren’t in season, so we don’t have them. Chestnuts are imported and hard to find, so we don’t have them. Turkeys aren’t locally farmed, so we don’t have it. I use as much fresh produce from my garden as I can, and anything I don’t have, I buy from local farmers. Cherries are typically eaten at Christmas here so, in the run up to the big day, we have a family day out to a local ‘pick your own’ farm to buy all our Christmas cherries and berries. Not a typical Northern Hemisphere Christmas activity but one that we have enjoyed adopting!

Tableware

First things first, please don’t use disposable tableware. If you don’t have enough for all your guests, ask someone to bring a few extra plates and cutlery, or find some bargains in a charity shop that can then be reused each Christmas and whenever else during the year that you have a large party. Every year for as long as I can remember, my parents have hosted a large party in the Spring that coincides with a local sporting event (not that anyone cares much about that; it’s just a good excuse to get a lot of friends together!). My grandmother, when she was alive, would do the catering, and over a number of years built up quite a collection of charity shop plates. My family have all been very grateful for these plates over the years; they’ve been passed around and brought out at birthday celebrations, Christmases, Summer barbeques and a number of other events. 

If you insist on disposable plates and cutlery, please opt for compostable ones as opposed to plastic. 100 million plastic utensils are used by Americans every day. Plastic cutlery is one of the largest ocean polluters and if you remain unconvinced, I guarantee you will feel differently once you’ve watched this horrendous video of a poor sea turtle having a plastic fork removed from its nose. I warn you, the video is distressing, but the turtle survives and it certainly hammers home the point.

Centerpieces and candles

Go natural! Pine cones, branches, berries (cranberries are lovely and bright!), fir and other evergreens, and logs all make for lovely table decorations. Or even a simple house plant! Normal paraffin candles are a petroleum by-product so instead seek out beeswax or soy wax alternatives.

Food waste

The amount of food wasted each year at Christmas is quite staggering. In the U.K. alone, 54 million platefuls of food are thrown away at Christmas. Cook only what you need and store any leftovers so that it will keep. Ask guests to bring a container so they can take some leftovers with them, and if you’re being hosted for Christmas, take a container with you (have you seen this post on zero waste food storage? The Klean Kanteen canisters are perfect for this!) You can also reduce your food waste by keeping vegetable scraps and meat bones to make stock.

Eco-friendly Christmas tree

Once the tree is up, the whole house fills with the cosy smell of Christmas. This is a tough tradition to give up but, even though we were sourcing our tree from a sustainable tree farm, something about chopping down a tree just to have it sitting in my living room for a couple of weeks didn’t sit quite right with me. 

Nor do I want a plastic tree. Yes, they can be reused for many years, but I don’t want to contribute to the plastic economy and, call me snobby, but from an aesthetics perspective, I just don’t like them.  So, what to do about a tree? 

Alex has decided to take on the responsibility of making us a wooden tree from scrap timber that we can decorate, dismantle for storage and reuse for many years to come. Unknown to Theo, he will be getting a real tool set for his 4th birthday at the beginning of December, so he and Alex can bring this project to life together if he would like. I’ll be sure to post pictures of the finished product when it’s complete!

Homemade tree decorations

Obviously if you already own tinsel, plastic baubles and a wonderful, much-loved array of tacky decorations, please don’t just throw them away, but please don’t buy new ones either. You can keep reusing what you have (I’m pretty sure that my parents are still using many of the same decorations they had 25 years ago, and they have lots of life left in them yet!), or you can donate them to a charity shop/care home/shelter so that they can continue to be enjoyed by someone else. 

When it is time to consider some new decorations, you could either make your own or buy handmade items that have been lovingly created using sustainable materials. We’ve done a mixture of the two. Here are some ideas for your own homemade decorations. Theo had a great time in the run up to last Christmas getting creative, practicing his fine motor skills and building his hand muscles.

Eco-friendly Christmas decorations may include paper chains and salt dough.
Making your own decorations can be a fun activity for the kids to enjoy during Advent.
Two salt dough footprint Christmas decorations. One Rudolf footprint, one Christmas tree footprint.
Salt dough decorations can be put in the compost at the end of their life provided you use natural paint, making them ideal for a green Christmas. If the kids want to add anything else (like goggly eyes), just remove these first and put them back with your craft materials to be used again.

1

Paper chains. Simple, effective and easily composted or recycled. They can be jazzed up with compostable crayons or paints.

2

Salt dough and natural paint. Kneading and rolling dough is a great activity for strengthening little hands. You can make lovely keepsakes using handprints or footprints to give as gifts, and with the leftovers you can sculpt, cut out and decorate whatever Christmassy creations you fancy. Provided you only decorate with natural paint, these can be composted at the end of their life.

3

Natural fibre felt. Felt can be bought in both natural and synthetic fibres so ensure you’re buying a natural fibre one. Stitch pieces together to create your masterpiece.

4

Nature’s treasures. Pine cones, cinnamon sticks, dried orange slices, and twigs crafted into snowflakes and stars all make for beautiful, rustic-looking decorations.

5

Bits and pieces from around the house that may otherwise be destined for landfill. This year we’ve used a stash of old buttons to make Christmas trees. You could use bottle tops, soda can rings, pieces of ribbon, jar lids; whatever you have lying around unused has the potential to be upcycled into a festive decoration.

Buttons stuck on green card and cut in the shape of a Christmas tree make a lovely eco-friendly Christmas decoration.
Unwanted household items like spare buttons can be repurposed into lovely eco-friendly Christmas decorations.

I hope you find these sustainable Christmas ideas helpful. Will your family be trying any of these this year? Do you have any other ideas to share? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re looking for some new year’s resolution ideas, check out this post on eco-friendly swaps for home and travel. Wishing you and yours a very merry green Christmas!

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Images of a reusable advent calendar and zero-waste Christmas crackers, with the title '12 ideas for a more sustainable Christmas' and the website logo.
Four images of zero-waste Christmas crackers, compostable wrapping paper, zero-waste decorations and a reusable advent calendar, with the title '12 ways to have an eco-friendly Christmas' and the website logo on top.
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