Happy (transformative) Christmas

By Marlene Roellig

The same scenario keeps repeating every year: The time that is supposed to be quiet and peaceful turns out to be the most hectic time of the year. Not only are there pressing deadlines at work every day, but also in our private life we tend to be stressed about presents, decoration, grocery shopping and getting the family together. On top of that, Christmas seems to be all about consuming. We buy presents which eventually end up in the basement, wrapping paper is piling up the bin and the food leftovers are enormous. Journals and the internet are full of suggestions on how to be more relaxed during this time and how to celebrate a more sustainable Christmas (see also this short article in the Huffington post). During the last few years, I tried all kinds of different ways to make Christmas less about consumption, more about family and more eco-friendly. Some things turned out to be easy, some things are difficult and some things simply do not work.

I would like to share some of my personal experiences and struggles regarding some (quite typical) suggestions for Christmas as you maybe find yourself in this list, reflect on your own traditions or would like to share some of your frustrations or successes on this topic in the comments:

Less Presents
When it comes to presents, I guess for me it is the most difficult part about Christmas. I do not like to buy stuff that nobody needs, but by asking everybody what he or she wants, all the surprise is gone. With my family being spread all over Germany, it is difficult to guess what the others might need, or want. We tried quite some different things in our family (which only consist of adults!):

  • Making wish lists: Well… as I said the surprising moment is gone then
  • Having the same (small) budget for everyone: This feels like you could buy your own present
  • Vouchers for activities*: This will never happen because we live too far away from each other
  • No presents: This felt super weird on Christmas eve (in Germany the presents are given on the 24th December in the evening)

In the end, we decided to go for no presents, because we realized how much it reduces the stress for everybody in the time leading up to Christmas. Yes, it felt weird the first and maybe second year, but as we got over the routine, it turned out to be nice. I certainly understand that this might not be an option for families with children or family members that are very attached to the tradition of giving presents.

Sustainable Christmas tree
Also for the Christmas tree, I came up with all kinds of ideas, driving my family nuts (honestly!). Buying a tree just to watch it die over the days made me feel bad, especially since the trees are often grown in monocultures where a lot of pesticides and fertilizer are used (at least if you buy them in these stands next to the supermarkets here in Germany). To avoid that, over the years I forced my family to:

  • Have no tree: Super sad!
  • Have a tree with roots in a bucket I: Nice idea, but as we don’t have a garden we had to throw it away after Christmas as well
  • Have a tree with roots in a bucket II: We found a place to replant it, but the soil was frozen so we had to keep it on the balcony – after all, it died.
  • Have a tree with roots in a bucket III: I made my mom bring it back to the garden centre after Christmas. The gardener just stared at her, but after some discussion he took it back – we do not know what they did with it after that…
  • Have a branch of some tree cuttings (in our case sloe (Prunus spinosa)) instead of the usual Christmas tree: I loved it, but part of my family was not so excited about it.
picture 1

Alternative Christmas tree from a sloe branch

This year, we will try to find a tree to rent or we will go for the branch again (see picture). As you can see, there is room for improvement! If you still like the idea of having a tree (as we still do) you can find some suggestions here and for the German speaking ones also here.

The food…
In our family, this is always a topic of debate as the way of eating seems to change every year. We had many different variations: from one person being vegan, another vegetarian, two people being vegetarian to everyone eating meat.

So far we tried:

  • Vegetarian food
  • Traditional Christmas food and vegetarian options
  • Indian food instead of traditional Christmas meals (mostly even vegan)

However, it seems that when it comes to food no “rule” is working; we are starting from scratch every year pondering over what we want to eat. Most of the time it ends up being a mixture of vegetarian and non-vegetarian, traditional and non-traditional food to make everybody happy.  By the way, the traditional food in Germany on Christmas Eve is potato salad and wiener, something that actually can easily be made vegan. Otherwise, we just try to buy regional and/or organic products as far as possible and avoid too many leftovers.

Ultimately, Christmas means somethings else for everyone, Christmas has different traditions and everyone has his or her own thoughts about it. Over the last years, I learned to be more patient with my family for not being so enthusiastic about my attempts to make Christmas more sustainable, but we are re-trying every year again to improve small things to slowly transform Christmas. I think it is, especially working in sustainability science, about balancing your own ideas about a more sustainable Christmas with traditions important to you and your family; making compromises and most importantly enjoying the time you spend with your family – that many of us do not get to see that often.

On that note: Happy (transformative) Christmas everyone!


*If you like the idea of vouchers for activities “Zeit statt Zeug” (English: “Time instead of stuff”) has some good ideas.





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