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Pohutukawa, New Zealand’s most biodegradable Christmas ornament?

As we approach Christmas (yes it is rushing up), our family is considering as a whole how we can be more ethical this Christmas.  I admit that I like a challenge, but this one is a doozy because there are so many things to consider. What is an ethical Christmas?  Perhaps it really is the thought that counts.  How much are you thinking about the person you are giving to, the people who made it and the environment?

Maybe we don’t have to listen to the corporates and big companies who want us to spend, spend, SPEND and never think, unless it is to consider if we should buy just one more thing.  Consumer driven Christmas is all about getting more stuff.  The original message of Christmas is simple.  Love.  When viewed in the light of love it’s not hard to see why stepping back from consumerism makes sense.  How much do you love the environment and the people you share it with?  How much do you love the people who made the things you choose to buy?

Over the last few years I have progressively opted out of the consumer driven Christmas rat race.  I didn’t think about it in so many words, but with hindsight I realise that’s what I had done. It wasn’t hard either.

First, I put a no junk mail sign on the letterbox.  This was driven out of desperation at the volume of junk mail we received in the lead up to Christmas 3 years ago.  The kids would pore over the toy catalogues.  Conversations were driven by what they wanted based on what they saw in the advertising flyers.  I have never looked back. I don’t need a glossy flyer to show me what is fashionable this year.  We have not watched TV in years so the ads on TV don’t get me either.  I am able to consider purchases mindfully.

A year after the no junk mail sign, I discovered the joy of buying online and having your purchases turn up on your doorstep without having to set foot in a Mall!  OK so I did visit our little local Mall for a handful of things, but the bulk of my buying was intentionally done in shops outside of a mall. And this is the important thing – if you are not being  pressured by must have deals, sales, or being tempted to spend up on impulse buys you can make more ethical decisions.  I really recommend these two simple steps to reducing stress around present buying.

In our family we start Christmas with an Advent calendar on the 1st of December.  Not the cheap chocolate advent calendars from the supermarket either! I always avoid those like the plague.  Typically someone succumbs and eats several days up at once, spoiling all the fun. We choose a Christian advent calendar with a nativity scene and little opening windows.

If you aren’t keen on that idea, I recently heard about an Advent Jar, where you put 24 ideas in a jar and draw out one a day.  Simple ideas like baking ginger bread Christmas trees together, making Christmas cards or decorations for the tree, or watching a Christmas movie together.  Depending on how you are pressed you could even get some nice Fairtrade chocolate and put “chocolate” on one or two of the notes if you are finding it hard to think of ideas.  Think of things that will work for you and your family.

On the 6th of December we celebrate St Nicolas day.  More common in European countries, I first encountered this when I was 10 years old while visiting my German cousins.  I never forgot it and as soon as we became parents we started the tradition for our kids.  Each child leaves a clean gumboot outside their bedroom door and in the morning they find a selection of nuts, fruit, a few chocolates, art and craft supplies and one small gift in their boots.  We always lean toward art and craft supplies and encourage our children to use them to create cards and gifts for people.  St Nicolas was a real person who is said to have paid to free children from slavery.  You can’t get much more ethical than freeing people from slavery.  While not for everybody, perhaps you might like to try this tradition too.

When it comes to presents, I have been turning my mind to ethical wrapping alternatives.  I have started using hand embroidered tray cloths and doily’s that I found at a church fair for 10c each.  I might also use new tea towels as well.  This idea allows for more than one gift (for example a book AND a pretty tea towel).  There is no torn paper wrapping to send to landfill!  I have come across a couple of ethical brands selling organic cotton, fair trade tea towels.  If that is too pricey then opt for something cheaper.  Maybe have a hunt through the local Hospice shop, Salvation Army Family Store, or Red Cross and see what you can find.  That way you are reusing an item and supporting a charity as well!  We’ve been using brightly coloured wool as ribbon, and I have begun raiding my accumulated fabric ribbons from gifts and flowers past.  I’ve always found them too pretty to throw out!

Ideas for a more ethical Christmas

  • Make your own Christmas crackers. A neat after school craft activity for the kids perhaps?  A handmade cracker with a personalised gift is better than any throwaway plastic novelty.
  • Find a charity to support as a family this Christmas.  Giving to others is actually good for us and it is a great way to do something for others at Christmas.  One way to do this is to decide on a charity and do something together.  This year our kids filled their own Operation Christmas Child boxes.  My eldest paid for hers herself.  The younger ones chose everything in their boxes and made suggestions, packing and repacking to get it all perfect.  We often wonder how their Christmas children are.  Operation Christmas Child is over for 2017, but you could start filling a shoe box ready for next year.  There are lots of charities to support, e.g. Christmas Box or Shoebox Christmas or your local food bank.
  • Cookies in a jar. Find a recipe for a cake, brownie, or cookies where you can pack the ingredients in a glass jar.  This is something I am going to try this year.
  • Hunt down some NZ made Christmas decorations or make your own using seashells, or little cones. I find these two articles confronting – where decorations are made and Inside Santa’s sweatshop. We will be trying to buy local or socially responsible decorations this year, or we will make our own.
  • Grow your own festive foods like strawberries. I’ve been planting our Christmas lettuce and I have tomatoes, strawberries and a capsicum in pots.  I don’t actually know if they will be ready by Christmas, but I am giving it a go.
  • Get a real tree for Christmas rather than an artificial one or consider a living tree that you can reuse from year to year. If you have a pine allergy you could use some other kind of potted tree (pohutukawa).  In areas where wilding pines are a threat to our native ecosystems look into live trees sourced from wildings.
  • If you have a particular gift in mind for a loved one, search online for an ethical brand. For example if you want to get a bag for someone consider Freeset, Sari Bari, or Loyal.
  • Opt for craft gifts for children that are not plastic such as art supplies, eg beeswax crayons instead of plastic crayons.
  • Choose one or two heirloom quality gifts that will really last (that way they won’t migrate to the rubbish bin in 12 months when they break) instead of lots of cheap ones. The Kilmarnock Toyshop sells beautiful toys crafted by people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Books are a great biodegradable gift, if chosen wisely then it is a gift that will keep on giving. Some of my old books are now favourites with the kids and I hope they will also be able to hand on their favourites to their own children in the future.
  • Give experiences – they are 100% biodegradable! Take your ballet mad daughter to a ballet.  Take a trip to the zoo or a wildlife reserve as a family, go camping or visit the beach for a picnic.  The idea behind this is to buy a bit less for Christmas, and instead treat the family to an experience that would normally be out of reach.  This way you are creating memories that will last a lifetime.
  • Give handmade stuff – not just hand made by you, but also local handmade gifts like unique pottery or art. I know that some of the nicest coffee mugs I own were handmade by local potters.
  • If you have a skill you could consider giving vouchers of your time to someone you think might benefit from it. For example if you are a joiner you could give 10 hours of your time for free.  If you are a photographer you could offer your photography skills.  Perhaps you could offer to teach someone a new skill like knitting, cooking or carpentry.  This way you are sharing knowledge and also giving quality time to a person you care about.
  • Have a go at creative up-cycling ideas!  Just try google for more ideas than you can shake a stick at.

Remember, “ethical” is not just a tag, it is also how long something will last and how much it will be valued and looked after.

In the end it has to be about what you can do yourself, what you can afford, and what is important to you and your family.  What matters most is appreciating those around you, your family, friends, and community, and to do so each and every day of the year and not just simply on Christmas morning.

I wonder if the most ethical thing we can do at Christmas is to opt out of consumerism.  As far as I can tell consumerism is where the unnecessary plastic, cheap labour, and environmental exploitation come into it.  I don’t know how far we will get towards a truly ethical Christmas in our family but in the spirit of the first Christmas 2000 years ago, we will be doing the best we can.

2 thoughts on “The challenge of an ethical Christmas

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