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Guide to Mindful Holiday Celebrations

Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just the winter, the holiday season is upon us. It’s the time of cold temperatures, glowing lights, gift-giving, and family feasts. However, like the rest of 2020, this year’s holiday gatherings will look different. As public health officials ask us to keep our gatherings small, sticking only with those in our existing households, many have scaled down holiday celebrations, which after all, may be a good thing.

We know it. The holiday season corresponds to a peak in consumerism, energy consumption, and waste generation. For instance, American household holiday lights use up more electricity than some entire countries do in a year (2015, AFP). But like every problem we identify, there is an opportunity to utilize an alternative practice with a lower impact. For instance, if every American family wrapped just three presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields (2015, USGBC).

There are so many ways to keep the holiday season cheerful and festive while reducing its environmental impacts. From gift ideas to meatless meals and to decorated trees, we’ve compiled a list of tips and resources to help you make mindful decisions as you plan for the holidays. A combination of creativity, simplicity, and money savings… It’s our gift to you!

Thoughtful and sustainable gifts

Every year, Americans spend hundreds of billions of dollars on holiday gifts, demonstrating substantial purchasing power that has the potential to influence market and industry trends. What if these dollars were invested in local and sustainable businesses and products? Here are a few ways you can make the most of your money: get a present for a loved one while supporting a good cause.

Reusable bamboo utensil set: this sustainability-branded set includes a fork, a spoon, and a knife, as well as a metal straw and a straw cleaner, all packed in a cute mesh pouch. Purchase sets for $8 apiece from the sustainability website.

Gift cards for local restaurants: “everybody eats”. A gift card for food is a safe present that also allows local establishments to generate revenue and keep staff employed at the time they need it the most. We encourage you to prioritize sustainable restaurants, such as those certified by the Green Dining Alliance, and/or Black-owned restaurants (these are both Black-owned and GDA certified!).

Known & Grown Gift baskets: you can chose among a few options of bags that include items ranging from lip balms and homemade soaps made with pasture-raised animal products, to teas, herbs, and tinctures, to finishing salts and cooking oils made with pesticide-free ingredients.

Gift cards for activities or experiences: a great fit for those who already have everything they need. Local creative reuse and repair shop Perennial STL offers gift cards and craft club cards, allowing the recipient to engage in monthly crafting happy hours during an entire year. For organizations that host activities and experiences but may not sell gift cards (community colleges, libraries, etc.), consider getting crafty and make a voucher yourself!

Memberships for non-profits organizations: another non-material option, memberships often come with a number of perks, including privileged access to programs, swag, communications, and more. Purchasing a membership on someone else’s behalf is a great way to support organizations you value, while encouraging your loved one to get more involved in the community! Here is a database of environmental groups across Missouri that could be a good place to start.

Wraps and cards

Instead of buying gift wrapping rolls, use what you already have at home! Old newspaper, holiday catalogs, magazines, and brown bags from the grocery store make for creative wrapping. You can even repurpose cloth or fabric scraps!

Skip the tape. Try to tie it up with a ribbon or raffia instead of taping everything together. Many tape brands are petroleum-based and are not recyclable. Creating fabric bows or reusable gift tags can also be a great family activity! (Note: while tape is not recyclable, you do not need to remove it from paper before putting it in the recycling – it will be removed through the recycling process.)

If you send holiday cards, buy recycled-content cards and envelopes. Alternatively, make your own cards or gift tags out of last year’s cards and the wrapping paper you saved. Cards that are FSC certified ensure that the products are sourced from responsible managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.

Trees, wreath, and other decorations

Decorated trees are a big part of the holiday spirit. While it is disheartening to know that most trees are only displayed for a few weeks before ending up in the trash, there are many alternatives to keep this holiday centerpiece, sustainably.

  • The most zero-waste option would be to decorate a tree in your yard or your indoor tropical plant!
  • You can also purchase a potted Christmas tree, so once the holiday season comes to a close, you can replant it, allowing it to reestablish its roots in the wild and grow once more.
  • If you are going artificial, consider a plastic-free material! You’d be surprised to know that you can actually make your own tree out of cardboard or other easy-to-find materials.
  • Have you ever thought of edible ornaments for your tree? We’ve tried popcorn garlands and oven-dried citrus slices, but there are plenty more options out there. When the holidays are over, you can either eat or compost your ornaments; a storage free option!

You can also make your own wreath out of foraged materials. Sustainability Coordinator at the School of Medicine Alicia Hubert was so kind to develop a tutorial to guide us through the steps it takes to create your own.

Wreath made by Alicia Hubert

For string light decorations, make sure to pick the LED kind. Some even come with an integrated timer that will take the stress out of having to turn them off every night. Choose soy or beeswax candles – they don’t contain paraffin, a petroleum-based ingredient that the EPA says can negatively affect your indoor air quality.

After the glow of Christmas is gone and the decorations have been taken off the tree, be sure to responsibly dispose of your Christmas tree waste. The trees can be mulched locally and lights can be recycled on campus until January 29!

Further Reading