Many of the things we think of as traditional at this time of year aren’t actually that old. The first Christmas tree in the UK happened around 1800 and they didn’t really take off until Queen Victoria got into them. The trees are a German tradition.
The whole red and white Santa image is modern, green Santas are older and before that we had a diverse bunch of Gods, saints, Goddesses and spirits associated with midwinter and gifts. Or punishment, if you happen to be a krampus.
There’s no one right way of doing any of this. Real traditions are living things that evolve over time. Harking back to older traditions in the hopes of finding something purer or more authentic is also a really traditional thing to do. At some point, every tradition we have is just something someone made up.
Living tradition should be about passing along the fun stuff, not dolefully re-enacting whatever has been handed down to us. It should always be ok to reject traditions that don’t work.
The capitalist side of Christmas is a terrible tradition, causing financial misery for many and putting extra pressure on our already struggling planet. These would be traditions to reject. It’s all modern nonsense anyway, and there’s no need to keep it going.
I hope that however you relate to this particularly odd day, that it treats you kindly and that you are able to find peace and good things.
Some years ago I started making fabric bags for Christmas in the hopes of cutting down on waste. Given the land and water requirements for growing cotton, this only works if people re-use the bags – if they are thrown away, it is far more wasteful than using paper. You do need to re-use cotton a lot for it to offset what it took to grow the material in the first place. However, cotton isn’t putting out microplastics and wrapping paper often has too much plastic in it to be recyclable. The huge amount of paper used for festive wrapping and then sent to landfill definitely isn’t sustainable.
I think cotton bags can serve an extra function in that they can become a sustainability reminder built into the festivities. They don’t invite you to buy throwaway, single use presents or anything in a lot of packaging. fabric bags also remove the temptation for extra plastic decoration in the form of bows and whatnot.
The photo above was taken on Christmas day. Those are all bags I made in previous years, that came back to me this year. Several of them with stories about having been sent on to other people and then sent back again. They’re being used. We did not end up with a bin bag full of rubbish this year, which has happened in previous years.
It’s not entirely straightforward – most things aren’t – but this year felt like a substantial move towards having less waste and keeping usable things in circulation. The bags also make wrapping easy, sparing people the investment of time and energy in wrapping.
My idea, Tom’s art, my mangling of a poem. Whatever you’re doing today, I hope it goes well for you. It’s not my festival, it may not be yours either. It can be a tough day for people who are alone, missing someone or otherwise struggling. I can’t offer much, but I can bring silliness, so here we are.
The season of gift giving is a good time to think about how, and why we give gifts and the implications of what we give. For far too many people, Christmas gifting involves going into debt. The whole process involves a great deal of waste – the overpackaging, the gift wrapping, the single use plastics involved, and the unwanted or soon broken things that head rapidly to the bin.
There’s a lot of pressure to buy and to spend. Especially within families. If you are time poor, then gifting stuff can be seen as a substitute for spending time doing things with a significant person in your life.
Gifting is an opportunity to display wealth and spending power. That can feel powerful, or disempowering, defending on whether you can afford it. The process may be unhappily competitive if you feel you have to out-spend someone else.
Small, cramped living spaces make the whole process more complicated. I have nowhere suitable for storing gifts, which is part of why what shopping I do is last minute. I also have challengings integrating anything coming my way and have encouraged my family to not buy me stuff, because I have nowhere to put it.
I prefer gifting in entirely different ways. I’d rather give at the point when something is needed, because then it’s valuable to the other person. It’s good to give things because they turned up, and were perfect, and to do it when it makes sense rather than trying to do it all in one go. I’d rather focus on the people who are more in need of having stuff head their way.
Waste and overconsumption are destroying life on the planet. Permission to spend less at Christmas is of itself a gift worth giving, to each other, and to the Earth.
Christmas isn’t my festival. If you come to this blog regularly, it probably isn’t your festival either.
Happy Christmas though to any Christian readers of this blog, to the Celtic Christians, the Christo-Pagans, the Druid Christians and all other fellow travellers for whom this day is meaningful and significant.
Happy Christmas to anyone for whom this day is a meaningful celebration of family, ancestry, community and relationship. I hope you have a truly lovely time of it.
For everyone else, here’s the Hopeless Maine Christmas card. we aim to do something a bit weird and un-jolly every year to comfort people for whom the season is uncomfortable.
My son was rather young when I took the decision to debunk Santa. I was never comfortable with it – for the first few years of his life he had no idea what was going on, but once he was talking, the idea of lying to him became deeply uncomfortable. I did not want to tell him a strange guy had come into his room at night and to be ok with that. I remember how uneasy I felt about that as a child. As a Pagan parent, I did not want to tell him about ‘magic’ I don’t believe in.
What swung it in the end was that his Primary school were collecting toys and gifts for poor children in the area. I could tell this made him uncomfortable, so I asked about it. Of course he’d figured out there was something really wrong with the magical Christmas guy giving extravagant gifts to the children of wealthy adults, while poor kids went without. I sat him down and explained – and he was much happier. I asked him not to let on, and as far as I know, he never did. Not even to adults who asked him what Santa was bringing.
I doubt he’s alone in having questioned this. Why do starving children not get a magical food delivery at Christmas? Why only at Christmas? Where is the magic guy in the sleigh while children are dying in war zones and suffering through other disasters? Why is the magic guy dishing out so much planet-harming plastic and wasting so much paper when the planet is in crisis? For a child to be happy with Santa, they have to ignore the plight of much of the world. Which of course makes it a good entry point into capitalist society. Play along, don’t ask questions, don’t ask about your privilege and you can have lots of presents.
Many of our kids are inherently better than that. Many of them don’t want to believe in a corrupt system rewarding those who have most and ignoring those in genuine need. Many of them care deeply about the future of life on this planet. They may be happier if they know the truth.
This is a story whose roots are indeed magical and generous, but the tale has been co-opted for commercial purposes. It’s not magic any more, it’s capitalism and consumption in peak flow.
Midwinter, season of over-commercialisation looms. Here are some tips for making your gifts more sustainable.
Ask people what they want. Surprises may seem attractive, but unwanted gifts can end up in landfill.
Listen to what people tell you they want, especially if you think it’s boring. For the person who can’t afford new socks, new socks are brilliant.
Start conversations about budgets. Don’t risk anyone feeling pressured to spend on gifts when they can’t afford to.
For the person who has everything – give them gifts that will make their gardens more wildlife friendly. Plant a tree in their name. Donate to a charity on their behalf.
Ask people not to use wrapping paper. Tell people that more than anything else, you’d like a waste-free Christmas. Start early on this.
Give re-usable things. This is especially powerful for people who have no choice normally but to by the cheaper, throwaway options. You’ll save them money and help the planet.
Give less. A few really well chosen gifts that will be loved and valued are far better than a sack full of plastic tat.
If there are children in your life, talk to them about consumption and waste ahead of Christmas. Many of them are very aware of the climate crisis and may feel happier doing the festive season in a more sustainable way.
Consider debunking Santa. The story of the big sack of toys is part of the commercialmass agenda. It’s not ‘the magic of Christmas’ it’s a tool to emotionally blackmail parents into buying excessive gifts. Consider talking about this with your family if that’s relevant to you.
Christmas is a time for giving, for charity, for doing a shift at the local homeless shelter. If you’ve had any contact with the Christian messages associated with the season, you’ll be familiar with the charitable aspect.
However, if your giving and your social justice activities are just for Christmas, pause and ask yourself why that is. Equally, if those around you only seem to care seasonally, see if you can start a conversation about why that might be. Homeless people will still be cold and suffering in January. Charities will still need supporting.
The trouble with having a charitable dabble over the festive period is that it can ease our consciences and make us feel better about ourselves. It has a similar function to those old Lord of Misrule, Twelfth Night and Saturnalia celebrations. You get it all out of your system over a few days, and by this means, the status quo is maintained over the rest of the year.
Just as pretending a twelve year old is the Bishop for one day of the year isn’t actually a cultural revolution, a bit of seasonal charity isn’t social justice. If we want radical change, we have to commit to it as a whole year round thing. We have to start calling out the people who think they can rock up at a shelter or a food bank in December and thus qualify as decent human beings. Especially when they happen to be politicians whose policies created all the misery in the first place.
If you don’t have a tree, well done! Please feel virtuous and easy of conscience at this point because you’ve already done the most environmentally responsible thing you could do on this score.
If you are in the UK, your local authority may well have a tree collection point for chipping and deployment – chipped trees can be used to help maintain paths, and this kind of re-use reduces their impact.
In some areas, charities are collecting trees for a donation, and then recycling them as chippings.
Find a responsible way of dealing with your dead tree. Don’t send it to landfill.
And really, Pagans, if you’ve killed a tree to celebrate midwinter, you might want to have a think about this.
They come in boxes, usually with a non recyclable plastic front. You get the momentary cheer of pulling them. Out pops a non-recyclable bit of plastic tat, and a couple of bits of paper – a hat that will likely tear as you try to put it on, and a crappy joke.
If you shop around online and through eco-outlets, you can find all kinds of exciting alternatives, with worthwhile things in them, and no plastic. But even so, I question the logic of the cracker. There are many ways to dress up a table, they aren’t necessary for that. I detest the paper hats, for me they represent all the forced jollity I hate about the season. If you want people to wear brightly coloured hats for the meal, why not invest in some brightly coloured hats that can be re-used?
So much more rubbish goes to landfill over the festive period. It’s worth looking at what you think is normal, and questioning it. Crackers are not that great when you stop and think about how much pleasure you derive from them compared to what they cost and how much needless waste they generate.