Sustainable Christmas


At this time of year, we pour so much of our energy, both physical and mental, into trying to ensure a ‘perfect Christmas’ where we buy the right presents for everyone, we have the house beautifully decorated (and tidied!) and have wonderful food and drinks available for friends and family. It can be exhausting. Christmas has become “the biggest annual festival of consumption around the globe”, and has reached the point where this excessive consumption is “not just normal, it’s positively encouraged” [Jen Gale]. So, how can we reduce our impact without losing any of the spirit and joy of this special time of year? Niamh Brannigan and Candice Moen ‘unwrap’ the situation.


In Ireland around the Christmas period we produce 25-30% more waste than we usually do []. In 2019, 75,000 tonnes of packaging waste was expected to be produced at Christmas []. In the UK, only 1% of consumer goods are still in use 6 months later [].

In 2011, 226,800 miles of Christmas wrapping paper was used to wrap gifts over one festive season in the UK – enough to stretch nine times around the world. Most of it ended up in landfill. [Dr Tara Shine, ‘How to Save your Planet One Object at a Time’]. 500 tonnes of fairy lights are thrown away each year. []. The equivalent of 2 million turkeys and 5 million Christmas puddings will also end up in the bin [].

Just on the subject of food waste, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data shows an estimated one million tonnes of food is wasted in Ireland each year (enough to fill Croke Park 2.5 times) at an average cost of 700 euro per household per year and collectively equal to 3.6 million tonnes of CO2.


The global material footprint is rapidly growing, outpacing population and economic growth. Less than one-quarter of the world’s people, those who live in the developed countries of both West and East, consume 80% of the energy and metals used each year []. The UN’s Sustainable Development  Goals aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for everyone by 2030, and Goal 12 is ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’. The statistics shared above paint a sorry picture and it is all the more painful to reflect on them in the context of the poverty that is highlighted, particularly at this time of year. All the charities, both home-based ones as well as agencies working for overseas aid, make pleas at this time for us to provide for those less well off than ourselves. Many of us donate to charities, or volunteer our time and effort for relief at this time of year. But is there more we could be doing to reduce the waste and lessen our impact, and in turn reduce the pressure our consumption is putting on the developing world.


In order to look at what we do at Christmas and to come up with better practices, it might be worthwhile to have a look at where some of our Christmas traditions have come from. Many of our Christmas practices evolved from different sources and traditions through time. The English term ‘Christmas’ is of relatively recent origin, whereas the term “Yule”is a Germanic or Anglo-Saxon derived word referring to the festival of the Winter Solstice. The Christian festival took place at a similar time to the ancient festival of Saturnalia celebrated by the Romans. This pagan festival celebrated Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, and had its origins in older farming rituals marking the winter solstice and midwinter. There was music and feasting, and wreaths and greenery were brought indoors. Wax taper candles were sometimes given as gifts, thought to signify light returning after the winter solstice.

By medieval times, the practice of bringing evergreens into the house was established, taking its inspiration from these older pagan festivals and belief systems. Evergreens symbolised eternal life and the hope for renewal of life in the spring; they reflected the turning of the year, which people in former times were very much in tune with. Despite the Puritans banning Christmas and merry-making during certain periods in the 17th century, many practices endured, and it was the Victorians who are credited with creating or continuing certain Christmas traditions such as carol singing, card giving, and the custom of decorating an evergreen tree. As these traditions became more widespread, simple tree decorations gradually evolved into more sophisticated ornaments, using materials such as lead, hand-blown glass, silk and wool. With the growth in commercial manufacturing, and the emergence of a department store culture during the 19th century, this led to gifts, cards, Christmas crackers and decorations, and food items all being mass produced. We may have become more removed from the ancient practices of bringing in foliage and young evergreens to symbolise hope and renewal, but in a forward to her poem “The Christmas Life”, the poet Wendy Cope quotes a young 8 year-old girl saying, “If you don’t have a real tree, you don’t bring the Christmas life into the house”. Her poem really encapsulates the joy of the season, and challenges us to embrace this Christmas life!


Gifting can be a bit of minefield to navigate at times – sticking to budget when inflation is making mincemeat of our ability to meet household bills, managing children’s expectations, deciding on which extended family members and friends to give to, and trying to make sustainable choices that will have minimal impact on the earth. It is essential that we reduce our consumption so it’s looking like time to “shake up” our reflexive buying response to the tinsel and string lights, and approach our purchasing more mindfully. This is an opportunity to: (1) Rethink the need for all the “stuff” and try not to impulse buy – there may be some other way of showing you care at Christmas; (2) Start a conversation with friends and family about cutting back on the mountain of presents; (3) Consider the environmental impact and footprint of each gift you are thinking of giving; and (4) Support local – if you are going to buy new then buy local to support community artisans and feed the local economy. Some practical prezzie suggestions include:

Sustainable Gifts: Make a photo book; gift a membership voucher eg Carrickmacross Toy Library, BirdWatch Ireland, Talamh Beo, Irish Seed Savers (or look for voucher inspiration on; gift a voucher for one of our local shops or some Monaghan town vouchers; for teens and young adults you could gift vouchers for an Outdoor Adventure experience such as Castleblayney OAC, Wild Awake Ancestral Skills, Surfing in Bundoran or Wilderness Ireland; film festival membership, theatre tickets, and newspaper or magazine subscriptions would all be great gifts to give (and receive); look for sustainable toys and Christmas goodies from online shops like Jiminy and Thriftify; or choose from a fabulous array of art or local craft – visit Designer Crafts at the Market House for gifting inspiration.

Homemade Gifts: Make some gingerbread and package it nicely in a jar with Christmas ribbon; make some homemade chocolates (there are lots of quite straightforward recipes available online); bake a favourite recipe and gift the goodies along with the recipe written out nicely; make chutney; make your own spice mix; make some hand cream or lip balm and personalise the scent; make a personalised cushion cover or pillow slip.

Gift an Experience: Promise a special outing to family, such as a hike and a nice lunch or a weekend  camping (or glamping!); promise a visit to a place like Castle Espie Wild Bird Sanctuary at Strangford Lough, the Marble Arch Caves in Fermanagh or Wild Ireland (pictured) at full moon to hear the wolves howling; gift a workshop of interest such as a bread-making workshop, or a photography skills workshop, or an art class.

For kids gift a day out in some attraction like Tayto Park or the Zoo; gift a visit to Newgrange or another cultural site or a visit to one of the beautiful National Trust properties in the north, such as the Argory (Co. Armagh) or Mount Stewart (Co. Down).

Gift your Time: Give your children a book of vouchers for foot rubs, back scratches and extra-long hugs; make a plan to babysit for someone who could do with some help; take someone’s kids for a few hours now and then to give them a break; offer to do grocery shopping for an elderly relative or take them to do their shopping; offer someone help in their garden; teach someone a skill you have such as crochet, painting or a language or music. Relationships take time and effort, and the best way to spell love is T-I-M-E.


What is the quickest way to reduce packaging waste? Buy less stuff! Do we really need all the stuff?  Consider the packaging before you buy – can you get something with less? Our demand is what drives production and, conversely, our choices will put pressure on manufacturers to reduce packaging and make their products more sustainably. Use recycled or recyclable wrapping paper – more variety is becoming available all the time. Just make sure you steer clear of the shiny wrapping paper as it’s full of microplastics. Re-use saved colourful paper, tissue paper, boxes and bags – keep a store of these when someone gives you a gift. They might just get them back some day! Use plain brown Kraft paper – you can use it plain, or tie a nice piece of twine or ribbon around it, or get the kids to decorate it with Christmas themed stamps, or potato prints. Try to avoid Sellotape, as the plastic contaminates paper for recycling. Paper tape is available in some stationery stores. Otherwise, use twine/ribbon to secure. If you can, try and skip the paper altogether. Buy or make cloth bags; the added bonus is that these bags can double as reusable shopping bags and become part of the gift!

A pretty tea towel or scarf is another idea. Tie a sprig of herbs with a cinnamon stick or circle of dried citrus to the neck of a bottle instead of using a wine bag. Use pretty glass jars to give edible gifts in, and decorate as above. Fill a basket with goodies and cover them with a tea towel; you can buy fabulous willow baskets that may just outshine the present inside, and they will be useful for years to come.


Remember what we were saying at the start of the article – data shows an estimated one million tonnes of food is wasted in Ireland each year, which is enough to fill Croke Park 2.5 times. A survey in 2019 showed that Irish shoppers waste 50% more food during Christmas week. Households throw out approximately €1.5 billion worth of food annually – peaking during the festive season when thousands of Christmas dinners are dumped to the value of around €42 million. But some of the best memories are made when we are gathered around the Christmas table, so what can we do to reduce our food waste impact?

Don’t create any waste! Make a food & shopping plan, only buy what you know you will use and don’t be tempted to buy a whole lot of extras; avoid multipacks unless you are sure you will use them. And do you know what? The shops are open again a day or two later! Buy Local. Where possible, buy local from places like The Local, Halligans Farm Veg, Bee Healthy and Cavan Cottage Market, and also try to choose some Fair Trade options if you can. Wherever possible buy fruit and veg loose, and use reusable bags for them. Buy your ingredients from sustainable sources. Places like The Local, Bee Healthy, Dublin Food Co-op, Green Earth Organics and The Cavan Cottage Market all source their produce sustainably and are minimal/zero waste. Reuse leftovers. Make leftovers part of your plan – if you are cooking for others two days in a row, make enough on the first occasion to use for the second day. It halves your work, and leaves you with more time to enjoy the holiday. Freeze surplus food. Wrap and label leftovers, sauces and gravies and freeze for later. They can be very useful to pull out during busy times, or in the grey unmotivating days of early January!

A recent initiative is the Olio app, where people can share unwanted food items with people in their area. It diverts some of the 19,000 tonnes of food dumped weekly from landfill. Creator, Tessa Clarke, believes that “People in Ireland have an innate sense of community and food is valued. They also like to give, and care about each other and the planet”.

She adds, “By enabling people to easily share more and waste less, we aim to help to transform our throwaway society into a giveaway society” [].


Being more conscious of the environmental impacts that come with our Christmas decorations shouldn’t leave us feeling like we’ve had a visit from the Grinch. Instead, focusing on natural and recyclable materials can make room for creativity and new traditions. Wintery afternoons can be spent foraging for festive foliage, the house filled with the citrusy scent of drying oranges ready to be turned into a homemade garland and busy little fingers cutting out snowflakes and making paper chains. What are some things we can do to achieve low-waste and natural décor? Don’t overdo the lights. Where possible, use mains operated ones rather than battery-operated ones. And hang onto them for as long as possible so they don’t become part of the 500 tonnes thrown away annually. Build traditions. Don’t feel you need to change your ‘theme’ or decorations every year. There is a certain excitement and nostalgia associated with taking down the box of decorations every Christmas and remembering little knickknacks from previous years that the kids made, or someone gave you as a gift, and that add to the uniqueness of your decorations. It’s a ‘story’ that you can build year by year.

Get the kids involved. Make snowflakes and paper chains with the kids. Make simple tree decorations with felt (decorations in the photo made by Niamh and her girls). Bring in the Christmas Life. Bring in greenery and berried twigs from your garden, hedgerows or forests and make wreaths or table centres from Christmas tree cuttings, holly and ivy.

Don’t go totally crackers. Crackers are a Christmas staple but they’re usually filled with plastic gimmicks. It is surprisingly easy to make your own, why not try? Use linen napkins. Grease from food contaminates the paper napkins and makes them impossible to recycle. Linen napkins are reusable meal and can make for a more sophisticated table setting.

And last but certainly not least – the Christmas tree! Most people will already have their tree sorted, but just for future reference – an artificial tree has a higher carbon footprint than a real tree (8.1kg compared with 3.1kg carbon dioxide per year for a real one). You’d need to reuse an artificial tree for 20 Christmases before it matches the lower carbon footprint of an annual real tree. But if you have an artificial tree already, don’t throw it out! Again, keep using it for as long as possible. If you are in the market for a real tree try and buy it from a local and sustainable source that is not using pesticides or herbicides during the growing process as this has a huge impact on biodiversity. If your real tree isn’t in a pot don’t forget to compost it afterwards by dropping it off at the recycling centre.


As much as we might want to hold on to familiar ways of doing things, especially at Christmas time, our current levels of consumption are unsustainable and change is unavoidable. Adjusting our lifestyles in response to global warming and making the necessary changes to reduce our impact can feel overwhelming at times but small changes can lead to big transformations. Our first steps may be hesitant and unsteady, like a baby learning to walk, but with each step we will grow in confidence. Choose one positive action to try this festive season and let that be your gift to the Earth.

View the above information in our handy e-book format!

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