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Here’s how wasteful holiday celebrations are – and how you can make them more sustainable

Sustainable Holiday Celebrations
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Danielle Alvarado


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Holiday celebrations have become synonymous with overconsumption. How have we gotten to the point where one of the happiest times of the year are also the most wasteful? From the first day of November – and increasingly even earlier – we are bombarded with marketing messages telling us to buy all the latest gadgets for our loved ones, wrap them in shiny unrecyclable paper and put a big plastic bow on top.

Is more stuff and more shiny packaging really going to make us happier? Especially in the US, with Black Friday just around a month ahead of Christmas, companies have even more excuses to convince us that the material things will make us happy.

Sustainable Holiday Celebrations
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We rarely ever think about what impact these holiday celebrations, as we know them in the 21st century, impact on the environment. 

The sheer amount of waste (and other issues)

This Christmas, people in the US are expected to spend 766.7 billion U.S. dollars on Christmas shopping. This sum doesn’t just include cherished and loved gifts – it’s also gift wrapping which can’t be recycled, including wrapping paper, ribbons or plastic tape, as well as a large amount of unwanted gifts ($15.2 billion’s worth, to be exact) – some of which are donated, some that sit in the back of the closet for years and some which head straight to the landfill.

Master List of Sustainable Etsy Picks for the holidays!
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Granted, waste isn’t the only problem associated of this commercialized model of Christmas – there’s also moral implications (‘This isn’t what the holidays are about’ or ‘we flood each other with unwanted, expensive gifts when our money could be spent on helping those in need’) or concerns such as teaching the wrong lesson to our children (making Christmas about gifts rather than time spent with family). All of these could be explored in their separate articles – we won’t go too in-depth on them here but it’s worthwhile to keep them in mind.

How did we get here?

The question of many people’s lips is ‘How did we get here?’. While Christmas comes from a Christian tradition celebrating the birth of Christ, that’s not what we seem to be celebrating in the 21st century.

The commercialisation of Christmas began in America and later spread across the rest of the world. The image of Santa Clause first appeared in an 1820s poem – and soon, families were lured to department stores where kids could sit on Santa’s lap, establishing the commercial environment as one where Christmas is meant to be celebrated. The 1870s saw the first appearance of store window displays especially for Christmas. In the 1930s Coca-Cola started creating its Christmas campaigns, associating Santa with the brand.

low waste holiday season
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As these commercial traditions spread across the world, Christmas began to be celebrated even in countries where only the smallest fraction of the population is Christian. One of the most (in)famous examples of commercialisation of Christmas is a campaign launched by KFC in the 1970s, which essentially made their chicken buckets the Japanese national Christmas dish.

Take it back to the basics to make a difference

Diving deep into how Christmas has been turned into a commercial tradition in recent years reveals a lot about the impact of corporations and marketing in our society, which often has ethical and environmental implications.

But enough with the grim societal analysis – how can you make a difference and celebrate Christmas more sustainably?

The easiest way to do that is to bring Christmas to the basics. Rather than running around the mall searching for expensive gifts, wrapping them in decorative paper and putting a big plastic bow on top, let’s focus on spending time with family, giving meaningful gifts and taking time to rest.

Support small businesses

When it comes to gifts, it’s a good idea to make them yourself, as that shows true care. However, even though we may want to make Christmas more sustainable, we can’t cut ourselves from the rest of the world – and sometimes, there’s just not the time for that.

The second best option is to support small, local, independent businesses in your area. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, try online marketplaces for small businesses and entrepreneurs such as EtsyTen Thousand Villages or Made Trade.

Decorate naturally

Rather than spending a lot of money on new Christmas decorations every year, opt for a combination of stable decorations you can use for years to come and natural DIY décor using food, things from nature or items you may already have at home – check out our blog post on the topic for ideas!

Enjoy stress-free holidays

Lastly, remember that holidays are a time to relax with your loved ones – not run around a crowded mall searching for last-minute gifts while Jingle Bells plays on the radio for the third time within an hour. 

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