Sustainable Gifting, Sustainable Celebration

For many of us, the winter holidays include some form of gift-giving occasion. Whether you’re among those who take joy in the gift-giving or get stressed out by it, you’re sure to be looking for some tips for greening your holiday celebration.

A wealth of blog posts, newspaper articles, and radio/TV segments on this topic come out every year, and you have surely heard the main standard tips or thought of them yourself. There’s a lot of good advice out there, and I’m not going to try to give you a post that just reinvents the wheel of already-existing great advice that’s out there already!

Rather, I will offer you some very general mind-set advice that’ll help you make your own choices. And, I’ll provide you with links to some of the best sources of additional tips that I can find. (And, OK, I am throwing in a few specific tips of my own too!)

Celebrations: Most gatherings will automatically be vastly more “green” this year, with fewer people traveling. From one tree-hugger to another, I urge you to embrace the pandemic as a very valid reason to forgo travel this year. Focus on the positive: no crowded airports and cramped seats, no travel expense, no harried logistics with bags, taxis, buses, Uber, public tantrums (yours, your kids’, or someone else’s!) or whatever you usually have to deal with to put your long-distance trips together.

Other pluses: No struggles with dietary differences (if your family has those — mine doesn’t but many do) or other daily lifestyle differences; no crowded bathrooms because the house that usually holds 4 people now holds 10 or whatever; no being the fatigued host or stressing out over being a “good guest”; no stressing out about your hosts or guests throwing food scraps in the trash because they are not interested in composting; not having to be “on” all the time. Yes, all of the above can and does happen, even in loving happy families!

Instead, we get to focus on the pure joy of just being present with our families. Thanks to Zoom, Facetime, and even phone text (with or without photos, as desired), or just plain phone, we get to have our cake and eat it too. All the benefits of travel, with the exact level of closeness we wish, and without any of the drawbacks (including carbon footprint, which for us greenies is always a concern we have to juggle). In the permaculture mind-set of turning problems into assets, I strongly urge you to embrace the CDC’s no-winter-holiday-travel advisory. With a bit of planning, you could even play cards or a board game by Zoom. And you could use your computer/phone screens to create the visual effect that you are all sitting at one long table! (That “long table” is a tip I picked up in a news article I read recently, and mentioned in a previous post. A brother and sister in different states did that for Thanksgiving dinner.) Yes, the hugs and general physical closeness is missing, but you can more than make up for that by deepening your communication; forging a more authentic connection with your loved ones.

Speaking of dinner: Holiday celebrations offer a perfect opportunity to support our local farmers. Whether you’re vegan or omnivore, paleo, macrobiotic, “See-Food” diet (my personal favorite), or something else, go local for your food this holiday season (and beyond).

If you live near the folks you want to celebrate with, get creative; maybe stage a “vertical concert” or other performance that folks can watch from their porches or balconies. (This idea was inspired by the Daytona Boardwalk Hilton’s plans for a “vertical concert” on New Year’s Eve. Sounds lavish and fun yet safe!) Come to think of it, people in Italy and other places have been playing concerts for each other throughout the pandemic. I saw one video of apartment-dwellers doing a music jam from their separate balconies. Also I read about a teenage girl who did a ballet performance in the courtyard of her grandparents’ nursing homes. These pandemic innovations can easily be adapted for holiday celebrations.

Or hey, just do the old-fashioned version of this: Go Christmas caroling! (Just don’t go in a group of more than two or three. And be sure and keep appropriate distance, from each other and from your audience, as singing and playing horns and such spreads more germs through the air.)

As for those of you who don’t take joy in being with your families (there are many dysfunctional families out there, bordering on criminal or sometimes actually being criminal, and I would not wish on anyone the obligation to spend even one moment with some of the ones I’ve heard about) — I invite you to consider “Covid 2020” your “Get Out of Jail Free” card. And use this year’s “Pandemic Pass” as a springboard to repeat in future years, whether or not the pandemic continues next year (or another pandemic or other external crisis hits, which is something I personally feel is likely and am planning on, and recalibrating my “normal” accordingly, though obviously I do not wish such suffering on humanity).

Of course, shipping (for those of you who plan to ship gifts) has a significant footprint also. But not as much as your physical body traveling in a car or plane or even train. And, there are great gifts you can give while minimizing shipping footprint (or even eliminating it entirely). This is what brings me to the next section …

Gifts: While some folks I know are intuitive spot-on givers of just the right gifts (talking to you, Rob and Ken!), many of us mortals stress out over it even in the best of times and even if footprint were not a concern. Recognizing that many people share your anxiety (if you have anxiety around this, which I most certainly have in the past, before learning a few mind-set tips which I will attempt to share), is in itself helpful to putting your mind at ease a bit.

That aside, here are some other “green” gift-giving tips I thought of for this post.

• For starters: Ask them what they are interested in receiving. Ask what they are not interested in receiving. Then heed their wishes. You can save yourself a lot of money, fossil fuel, and angst by adhering to this tip. As well as practicing the Golden Rule of “Do Unto Others.” If what they want is extremely not-green, then buy them a classy durable vintage version of it if possible. If it’s not possible (for example, if they hate used stuff, or if everything on their list is new, non-essential electronics), then you could 1) go in on the gift with other family members, sharing the cost and footprint; or 2) leave that gift to someone else to give them, and instead you use one of the gift ideas listed below, as long as it doesn’t violate any of their “Please Don’t” list.

• A big part of our holiday gift-giving footprint comes from driving around in cars, scouring the shops for “the right gift.” Reduce this aspect of your footprint (and make your shopping much quieter, sweeter, and leisurely-paced) by either online-ordering, shopping by phone call, walking to your local shop. Or walking to the home of your neighbor who sells her handmade jewelry, artisanal soap, stuffed animals, handmade books, or other gift-able goodies! Another great source of local gifts is the “For Sale” section of your community in the NextDoor app; many micro cottage businesses market their wares via this channel. Eco and resilience bonus for helping to build social cohesion in your neighborhood!

• Edible treats! Always a crowd-pleaser, and maybe this year more than ever, with many households experiencing a financial crunch and feeling less able to treat themselves. The “resurgence of homemade” (and the “resurgence of supporting local business”) make it an easy choice to make, or find, crowd-pleasing gifts like jam, cookies, sauces, even handcrafted meal kits. (One of my favorite gifts, received as a thank-you from an organization I volunteer for, was a five-bean chili kit, consisting simply of a ribbon-tied jar of beans and a bag of spices! I often make my own stews and soups, and have no trouble assembling my own blends, and yet this mason jar tied with a scrap of ribbon really warmed my heart. You might be surprised at how much a food gift is appreciated, especially by a busy person.) Living in Florida, I have often visited my local citrus gift shop to assemble a gift box of citrus fruit, citrus candies, hot sauce, alligator-shaped chocolates, shark gummies, and other treats to ship to my family. The shop takes care of packing, shipping, and everything. If you yourself have fruit trees (or nut trees etc.), think of those as a source of gifts. You could even make dried fruit, or veggie chips, if you are dehydration-savvy.

• Speaking of “dehydration-savvy,” you could use the winter gift-giving holidays as the impetus to develop a new homesteading or crafting skill, which will stand you in good stead for every gift-giving season to come. Regarding skills: If you don’t have an old-school neighbor, a permie guild, or anyone else local who can social-distance-teach you, YouTube is your friend! Everything from dehydrating to tatting to leatherworking and bookbinding, it’s all out there!

• Other “green” gifts I’ve given that were appreciated are used/vintage books that reflect the recipient’s interest. Though any used item might not be a popular choice right now, I could still manage to do this by, say, putting the book in a Ziploc bag and leaving it in a sunny window for a few days for UV exposure. Also, I imagine that used-book stores have devised their pandemic protocols; I will try to check on this but if you know anything, give me a shout.

• In the same spirit: vintage map of a place the person loves, or that you share a love for. (Update: A day after I typed this, Ted’s Vintage Maps popped up in my FB feed. You can input your town or ZIP code; they claim to offer prints of 3,000 different old maps.)

• Soaps, lotions. Soaps and lotions are always good; people are constantly using them up. And there are so many local artisanal makers these days; soap or lotion/cream is a cherished gift rather than just a drugstore item. You could buy the person something that’s representative of your home state/bioregion; or use the miracle of the internet to find a local maker in the recipient’s own region! Either way, you will be supporting a local business. (And if you order them something from their home region, you get eco bonus points for reducing shipping distance, and introducing them to a local maker in their own backyard — and to the “Support Local” mindset in general if they do not already have that.)

• That tip about buying local gifts that are local to the recipient’s location? Good news: It works for all categories of gifts, not just soaps & lotions! One Mother’s Day, I phoned the plant nursery down the street from my mother, gave them my card number over the phone, and had them put together a mini herb garden in a big attractive pot and deliver it to her. (My mother was a frequent customer of the nursery but still loved getting the gift.)

• Online lessons! From yourself or from someone else. Musical instruments; singing; language; art; crafts. This idea was inspired by a Daytona Beach area voice teacher who’s doing booming business during the pandemic.

• Are you the family archivist? Get those family photos scanned and put onto a memory stick (or up on the cloud) for everyone. Or research your genealogy/ancestry and give everyone a copy. Or write a family history of the life & times of your family (even just from your own shared childhood memories forward, if you don’t have info about departed generations). You could also make a mix tape (uhh, mix stream? mix memory stick? showing my age here!) of family favorite songs.

In my experience, most of us “greens” don’t have trouble thinking up eco-friendly gifts. Rather than struggle with finding green gifts, what most of us eco geeks struggle with far more is how to speak up, without hurting anyone’s feelings, about our wishes to not receive environmentally damaging items, or not receive tangible gifts, or even not receive any gifts at all. Regarding the “receiving” aspect, I’m sharing some tips that have worked for me.

Get honest with yourself: Do you want gifts? Do you prefer not to receive gifts? Do you have a preference for tangible rather than intangible or vice versa? You can’t control what others do. Those of us who are avid stuff-minimizers well know: Sometimes our choice, the more clearly we try to verbalize it, only seems to feel, to the insistent gift-givers in our lives, like throwing down the gauntlet! My best advice: Get clear and centered so you can voice your wishes calmly and clearly. If you get something you don’t want, donate it. If the something is a very non-eco-friendly gift, it’s not going to get any more eco-friendly by ending up in landfill unused. By you donating or re-gifting it, someone who’d just be buying the same item anyway will now get it as a gift or a thrift-store bargain.

Ditto for a gift that goes against your core beliefs. You can choose the safest possible donation/re-gifting option. Like, if someone gifted me a handgun (very unlikely, but if they did), I’d donate it to a shooting range or other safest possible option. If I had kids and got a bunch of junky plastic toys, I might donate them to a preschool or church or daycare, provided that the place is one that uses those kinds of things already.

My family is actually super thoughtful and considerate about each other’s choices, but many folks are not so lucky as I am; we all hear constant horror tales particularly from parents of young kids who get inundated with plastic toys and junk, food that’s not on the family diet, etc. Anyway! Getting deeply honest and clear with yourself is your first step toward voicing your choices calmly and clearly, thus being more likely to meet with alignment from friends and family members, and, if applicable, co-workers. (Regarding co-workers, I suspect the stratospheric rise in work-from-home will at least eliminate those sometimes-fun, sometimes-dreadful gift exchanges that are staples of workplace life.)

Like most of my posts, this one is subject to evolve. I’ll add to it as more ideas occur to me.

Further Exploration:

Vertellis Card Game: Never played it; never actually seen it. But even just from the ads for it that came through my Facebook feed, I know I want to get a set. It’s a way to spark meaningful conversation among family members, and seems like a great fit for any visit, be it remote or in person. (If remote, I suggest getting a set for your own household and for each household of your immediate family.)

17 Tips for a More Sustainable Christmas This Year (

• Zero-Waste, Zero-Judgement group: If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend you join this Facebook community. To join, type “Zero Waste, Zero Judgement” into the FB Search field and click on Join. Once you have joined, scroll down to see various posts, or type a keyword such as “gifts” or “holidays” in the search field. I know that some of you are Facebook-averse. But really, I cannot recommend a better source of specific, DEEP-green tips, not just for the holidays but for every daily choice you, your household, and your community grapple with. The group has literally tens of thousands of members from all over the world. People in other countries have solutions I would not have thought of even with my permaculture background. Though I have often contributed tips in response to other people’s questions, I learn and receive at least as much as I give (though in keeping with the group’s guidelines, I strive to give more than I receive). Simply speaking, ZWZJ is a treasure trove!

A final word, or should I say ramble, from me: Raising humanity’s eco-consciousness and reducing our footprint is an urgent, non-optional task. I thank all of you who realize this and are living accordingly. It’s not as though our environmentalism is some self-indulgent hobby, or a stick we are using to beat ourselves up or do a power trip over others. (Though many “civilians” might see it that way — which is where getting our minds in order; getting ourselves more calm and focused and intentional, comes in.)

Cheap fossil fuels and other abundant resources have removed essential feedback loops from modern human life. Basically we have insulated ourselves from Mother Nature’s reality check. Those of us who are aware of this basically have the task of plugging into feedback loops and acknowledging real planetary limits that the mainstream consumerist society we live in doesn’t want to see (and has a strong vested interest in not seeing). This can feel lonely and weird and alienating at times, and extreme gift-giving holidays can magnify those feelings.

During historic widespread emergencies that mainstream society acknowledged and bought into (World War I, World War II, the Great Depression) people continued their celebrations but stayed within the parameters of acknowledged resource limitations. (Then again, I’m looking back on these through a historic telescope. Now it occurs to me there were surely people who defiantly whooped it up for the holidays with no regard to rationing, state of emergency, etc. Though if they did, they probably would have had to do it secretly, as the austerity measures had been declared by the government, with stiff penalties for violators. Or, in the case of the Depression, the still-wealthy might have kept their celebrations quiet out of some sense of social shame, or at least out of some concern for their own security if their consumption got too conspicuous.) (History buffs or oldtimers: If you have any info on this, please drop me a line!)

The pandemic is a similar widespread emergency. Although in wide swathes of the USA we have large chunks of the populace not “believing” in it — and they are acting accordingly — still, over the past year most people have pivoted to celebrate holidays and other special occasions within the parameters of a widely acknowledged emergency. We’ve developed new ways of celebrating and gifting, and have come out the stronger for it. More resilient, even anti-fragile.

And now here we are, eco folk seeking to be green for the holidays. In this endeavor, we have no official support, nor institutional backing. The ongoing task of standing up for the planet that is our only home, living by our values and within the parameters of the global environmental emergency (that we know is real even though consumer culture has airbrushed out the feedback loops or concealed them with glitter) grows more urgent with each passing day. And it doesn’t take a break for the holidays. Therefore, I wish you happy holidays, made all the more joyous by living true to your values. And remember: You aren’t alone. There are lots of us doing this.

P.S. Update 12/14/2020: Another piece of “stay-at-home” encouragement for us greenies: Carbon dioxide emissions dropped by a record amount in 2020, and transportation accounted for the greatest share of the decrease.

That’s the biggest yearly drop on record, the group said.

Transportation accounted for the largest share of the global decrease, researchers said. Emissions from surface transport, such as car journeys, fell by approximately half at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdowns.