It’s here! It’s here! The holiday season is officially upon us, and this is a guide to an eco-friendly and low waste Christmas with kids. We’ll cover decorations, food, traditions, gifts, and of course the tree.
For our family, this time of year’s focus is around celebrating winter. We do give gifts, bake cookies, and listen to Christmas music but it’s about honoring the seasonal shifts that are most important to us. We prefer to have a simple and slow holiday season and focus on the entire experience.
How to have an Eco-friendly Christmas
The holiday home tours come out on Youtube earlier and earlier every year! I seriously saw one in September. Now, I’m all for decorating for winter when the weather starts to change, but for most of America, the day after Thanksgiving starts the crazy hectic race to Christmas day.
Sustainable Christmas Tree
Cool read: The History of the Christmas Tree
I did a poll on Instagram asking what you all thought was the most sustainable option for a Christmas tree. The answers were all a bit different but totally had an occurring theme.
Here are the best tips:
- The most sustainable tree that you can get is the one that already exists. So, if you (or someone you know) have an artificial tree, then use that one.
- Another option is to buy a secondhand artificial one.
- You can also grab a real living tree with roots that can be planted after the holidays. We have done this too and you can make a tradition out of planting it later. This year we have a small living tree and we made our own tree out of salvaged greens from the tree lot.
- How about choosing a tree that’s in your yard and decorate it with natural things that wildlife can enjoy?
- Or choose any houseplant. I would have done this with my lemon tree had it not lost almost all of its leaves in a wind storm on our balcony.
- You can always make your own using whatever you have! Like I said we salvaged tree cuttings from the hardware store or Christmas tree lot (I’ve never been turned down for this). These are usually headed for the landfill and especially the big box stores (Lowes and Home Depot) don’t care if you take them. Some smaller Christmas tree lots are smart enough to use them. Or try making one from leftover wood, just a string of lights, sticks, a pile of laundry… seriously, get creative.
- Or buy a fresh-cut, sustainably grown tree and recycle or compost it when you are done. Or use it as firewood, after all, Christmas trees grow quickly and help out air pollution.
Consider a real tree if:
- you don’t already have a plastic, reusable tree or can’t easily find one secondhand.
- you are near a local farm/lot
- it’s a cut tree you can compost, recycle, or repurpose it when you’re done.
- You can plant it when you are done. Make sure that your tree will thrive in your area. A common tree, the Norfolk pine may be more suitable as a houseplant than an outdoor plant in your area.
You may want an artificial tree if:
- It’s the one you already have or can borrow.
- you can find one secondhand
- You have space to store it
- You plan to keep it and take care of it for a long time.⠀
The truth is that there is no correct answer. So mindfully choose based on what you have, what is available, and what you like.
Sustainable Holiday Home Decor
For decorating around the house, I much prefer to use natural things like greenery or holly sprigs from outside. I do have a few secondhand items that I love, but I also really like using items that you wouldn’t expect as Christmas decorations like a vintage phone, cookie cutters, and a vintage postage scale to hold a letter to Santa. This year we did a few easy DIY’s for some more holiday decor that you can see more of in my Instagram Stories. These were simple things like:
- using sticks found on the ground and twine or yarn to make ornaments.
- making pinecone tress (or just a bowl of pinecones)
- Hanging fragrant herbs like rosemary and sage
- drying oranges
- making a garland from popcorn or cranberries
- making paper snowflakes
- paper chains
- wreath making. Check out this old wreath making tutorial I did a few years back
- I made a pillow and a stocking from a set of three (missing one) Christmas placemats that I found at the thrift store
- I also have great luck finding cozy holiday blankets if that’s what you are looking for
- Use bar soap scraps to draw on snowflakes and snow scenes on windows and glass
- We make pompoms out of yarn found at the thrift store mixed with some we already had
- If you plan to use lights, check out thrift stores first or look for LED lights.
If you are looking for sustainable holiday decor, the same rules apply: Use what you have, look for natural/compostable materials, buy secondhand, support small makers, simple DIY, or do without.
Zero Waste Advent Calendar
We usually do a countdown to the Winter Solstice with a paper chain that coordinates with a seasonal book. Read more about it here.
But this year since my oldest is nearly four, I wanted to try making an advent that counted down to Christmas eve in an attempt to help him recognize numbers. I use an old thrifted frame, a thrifted holiday dish towel as the background, then just some twine and scrap fabric. It’s filled with:
- A mix of notes for special treats (cookies or something that wouldn’t fit)
- tickets for hot cocoa date
- a few chocolate chips
- some bulk candies
- a few pieces of leftover Halloween candy
- a small treasure hunt/map
- acts of kindness (example: make Christmas cards for nursing home residents)
Zero Waste Children’s Gift’s
For myself, I keep a Pinterest board titled Wanted so that I have a running list in the event that someone asks me what I want. I also have a board titled Gifting where I save any ideas throughout the year that would make great gifts to give. The moral of the story is… make a list or board.
For my Kids…
The hardest part about Christmas with kids is easily the gifts. With my children being so young, experience gifts are a little hard as they don’t completely understand the concept or there are limited things to do for that age range that we haven’t done already. Here are a few ground rules for physical gift-giving that I try to stick to:
- Keep a list of whatever they ask for throughout the year. Waiting makes it so much more special.
- Take that list and find items secondhand or I refer to that list when a family member asks what to get but isn’t likely to buy secondhand. This came in handy when my grandmother (my children’s great grandmother) wanted to give a gift to the boys. She lives in a nursing home and isn’t able to leave often or for long but wanted the joy of buying her great-grandchildren a Christmas present.
- I also try to buy things that they need, like a new water bottle.
- Whenever possible, I like to support small makers so I’ll often look for handmade wood toys
- If we ever plan a bigger vacation or trip, I would like to try to give that as an experience gift or give items needed for that trip as a gift
- If there are any activities my children do (like sports) then I would also consider some of those items being given as gifts too (new baseball glove, etc.)
- When my children are under 2, we don’t give gifts because the grandparents give enough. But we might fill a stocking with small baby items
- Support sustainable brands whenever possible.
- No battery toys! Or leave the batteries out. Most toys with bells and whistles are too stimulating anyway but if the toy doesn’t work the same way (a button breaks, or lights stop flashing) then sometimes a child might not want it anymore. Now, this could be a great teaching moment, this toy is still perfectly good. But I’d rather them use their imagination to begin with anyway.
- Rechargeable batteries. If you absolutely are giving/getting a gift that requires batteries, then choose rechargeable.
- Check eBay and set filters for used items. Or check out Thriftbooks.com for children’s books.
But what about other people giving gifts? How do we make sure it isn’t excessive or wasteful?
First things first, ask them not to wrap it, or be mindful of wrapping if you can. I request that gifts come unwrapped so I can wrap them myself in salvaged paper or fabric since most wrapping paper can’t be recycled and composting it is tricky too.
Another thing I do is if a gift comes in packaging, I take it out before I wrap it if possible. Especially if it’s a toy or gift for my kids. Because I know on Christmas morning with everything going on, I’m less likely to be on top of any trash and it might go out into the dumpster before I have a chance to sort it. I’m mostly thinking of brand new toys that my kids are given by grandparents. They have 100 plastic zip ties, a plastic holder thingy, and the box it came it…. it’s a lot.
Set a limit
And tell everyone that gives gifts. You can do this the nice way, or you can play a little hardball. It really depends on the dynamic of your family. I’ve set a one gift rule with extended family before and explained that anything else will be donated right away… Toys for Tots thanks them for their generosity. Now, I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing…. What would I have done if I really needed to own up to donating my kid’s gifts? I don’t know, and thankfully I didn’t have to find out because it worked… for the most part.
5 gift rule
You can also do the 5 gift rule: Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. I’ve heard other variations with charity involved.
Specifically request what you have in mind
I saw a letter like this one online somewhere but can’t remember the original source. I rewrote it to fit our family but feel free to use this one or come up with your own.
Dear loved one,
We’re sending you this letter because there is something important that our family would like you to know. We have been trying to lessen our impact on the planet. We’re not perfect but we could really use your help to make our efforts count. When gifting this year please be mindful:
- no plastic, please
- no disposables, please
- repurposed wrapping or no wrapping at all
Secondhand or experience gifts are the best. We also love books, treats, and secondhand gifts. We don’t want to seem ungrateful, we simply don’t need anything but the gift of your presence. Let’s do something unique this year and start a new tradition for us and the planet.
Zero Waste School Fundraiser
You can also try organizing a zero waste fundraiser at your child’s school like Sophi from Youreecofriend
To support her daughter’s school, they asked parents to bring their unwanted books and toys. She had them drop off items 3 days prior to the school concert event where they planned to hold the fundraiser. They also had a few local cafes donate baked goods to sell and she set up a station to teach how to wrap gifts with fabric.
Zero Waste Gift Ideas
Teacher Gift Ideas
Giving gifts to teachers could get tricky. We definitely want to give something they will like, find useful, and not throw away. My friend Jeannie is a teacher and she said that every year the PTA sends out a letter or form asking teachers what they want as gifts. I think this is a brilliant idea and would encourage you to contact the head of your PTA and ask if this is possible. If not, try giving a consumable or experience gift instead.
Consumable Gift Ideas
- coffee beans bought in bulk or in compostable packaging
- soup mix
- spice mixes
- Lush gift certificate or certificate to an eco-minded spa (or any low waste shop)
- hot cocoa mix
- brownie mix
- hot sauce
- loose leaf tea
- infused vinegar
- cookie mix
- candied peels
- apple, pear, or pumpkin butter
- bath soak
- freshly baked bread
- peanut brittle
- seasoned salts
- dry face mask clay mix
- ethical chocolate bars
- homemade caramel sauce or date caramel
- bar of soap
- infused oils
- body oil
- bamboo charcoal water filter
- lavender sachets
- dried herbs
- baked goods
- holiday cookies
- nut butter
- DIY lotion/body butter
- lotion bars
- lip scrub
- homemade vinegar
- candy from bulk bins in a jar
- bath salt
- lip balm
- sugar scrub
- bottle of wine
- homemade vanilla extract
Sustainable Children’s Gift Ideas
- A water bottle, sippy cup, utensils, lunchbox, plate, etc with their favorite character on it. Something useful and exciting for them that you can also try to source secondhand. Maybe they don’t have specific characters (like Batman) but instead have an interest like butterflies, dragons, pirates, etc. You can try looking for makers who create items that would be a good fit.
- Towels, soaps, bath bombs, bubble bath, etc. We love bathtime around here but it’s especially fun when we get the chance to add something tool to the tub. You can make many fun kid’s bath products at home like playdough, slime, and paint. Or, try sourcing bubble bath from ethical brains like Alafia.
- Learning toys. Toys that help children with learning a skill or developing an interest can be a great low waste gift it’s well cared for. We homeschool so often I’ll consider something that would be useful in our lessons like a globe. It may not be plastic-free or package-free, but I think it goes in hand with making a mindful purchase and teaching our children to value these items. Again you can find local makers for these or try to find them used, but if you are rustling at the last minute for a gift and pop into a big box store, the least we can do is consider the longevity of a gifted item when it doesn’t check all the boxes.
- Toothpaste, toothbrush, hair stuff. This all depends on the age of your child, but these are easy low waste items that are great for gifting. For younger kids, consider giving a toothbrush with some stickers so they can decorate them.
- Seed bombs, seed paper, natural wax crayons, mineral pigment paint, art paper, scissors, etc.
- Playdough. Homemade or storebought, this makes a great gift. You can source it from a small business or maker. But, even if you end up with yellow plastic cups of play-doh, I’m pretty sure it is compostable and the cups can be repurposed for homemade playdough, organizing, sorting games, or recycled.
- Blocks. Wood, magnetic, linkin logs, legos. Again secondhand is best but longevity and end-of-life plans play a crucial role in choosing gifts for us.
- Pajama’s or slipper. Who doesn’t love getting pajamas on Christmas? I have great luck at thrift shops for this but there are some great ethical and sustainable brands out there.
- Kinetic sand. This can be made at home or store-bought. Either way, I’m sure it won’t be package-free but you can be mindful about it. If you buy it, be sire to repurpose packaging whenever possible and keep the sand as clean as possible. That means only playing at the table, not the carpet… that should be obvious but I’ve had to remind myself. I don’t know if the storebought sand can be composted, but the homemade sand seems to do just fine.
- Socks. I’m obsessed with these sustainable socks for everyone!
- Money. Well, who doesn’t like cash?
- Experiences and/or items for that experience
- Digital lessons like piano, photography, web design, etc.
- Memberships to local gardens, museums
- Movie tickets, concert tickets, comedy show, child’s show (depending on age)
- A trip to the arcade or local play place, laser tag or minigolf, amusement park tickets
- A blanket fort building kit made from sheets, blankets, clothespins, clothesline rope, etc.
- Musical instruments. Either the real deal for older kids or play instruments for those just starting to find their rhythm.
- Recycled toys. There are some recycled toys on the market so if all else fails, you can look for those.
- Solar phone charger for the older kids. In fact, at the age you decide is appropriate I’m sure devices and gadgets will inevitably something under the tree one day.
- Purse, wallet, or piggybank.
- Stickers or temporary tattoos
- A toy they have had their eye on for a long, long time.
- Cleaning or cooking items for play.
- Play food. It’s easy to make out of felt or salt dough but you can also find it handmade too.
- Give a tree or support another great charity!
Zero Waste Gift Wrapping
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How do you wrap it? Or, do you? . Gift giving and zero wasting make me giddy. I live passionately for both of these things… they're like my love language. . Before transitioning to lower waste, I also loved gift wrapping. I mean all the fancy glitter, ribbon, bells, baubles, tags, color coordinated, Pinterest worthy junk. It took time, money, and resources to wrap beautiful gifts, then it all went into the trash. What a waste? . Now I use quite a few different things to wrap gifts. We utilize stockings, reusable cloth bags, and repurpose any paper that comes our way. If we're ever short, we can always make our own wrapping paper or pull from our stash of the kid's artwork. . When I give a gift to a friend, my favorite way to wrap it is what I call the double gift method (or in this case a triple gift.) For this one: *I tied an organic cotton bandana from @standardthemes around the box. I love that the tag says "take me everywhere" because it's so useful as a headband, napkin, baby blanket, bib, or burb cloth…and yes gift wrapping, just to name a few. *I embellished it with a quartz ornament that I made and with a few sprigs of this plant… sorry, IDK what it is, do you? And there ya go! Three amazing earth friendly gifts in one. How are you keeping your gifts under wraps? . . . . . #ditchplastic #simpleliving #plasticfree #zerowaste #zerowastehome #minimalchristmas #reducewhatyouproduce #intentionalliving #circularliving #lowimpactmovement #zerowasteirl #zerowasthome #consciousliving #yayforearth #gogreen #sustainable #slowliving #sustainability #sustainbleliving #persuehappy #lifewithoutplastic #zerowastecollective #ecofriendly #goingzerowaste #saynotoplastic
The zero-waste gift wrapping possibilities are endless.
Fabric Gift Wrapping Ideas
- vintage hankies
- fabric scraps and remnants
- fabric napkins
Eco-friendly Gift Wrapping Ideas
- Repurposed paper from mailed packages
- Salvaged wrapping paper from gifts you’ve been given or rolls of wrapping paper from thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales, etc.
- Children’s artwork
- A takeout bag. Seriously, I found a clean In n Out Burger bag one year that said Happy Holidays all over it.
- Thrifted tins
- Repurposed boxes
One of my favorite parts about the season is the family traditions. When I was younger, we didn’t have a ton of traditions other than driving around looking at Christmas lights (but we’re not doing that anymore on account of emissions) but now that I have my own family, traditions are very special to me. We love to bake cookies and our elves come out every year, we also celebrate Midwinter.
For us, creating decorations, making gifts, and cooking are the best traditions.
No holiday would be complete without talking about food. If you plan on hosting guests this year, check out this blog post Zero Waste Dinner Party to avoid food waste.
Fun fact: I used to plan a lot of parties. Seriously, weddings, galas, opening night after-parties at the theatre, and fundraisers… I love a good party, especially if I’m the one throwing it.
Here are my top tips:
- If you are attending a party, bring your own cup, fork, and napkin just in case.
- Don’t show up empty-handed. Bring a plant, wine, tea or any other consumable gift I listed earlier. Cookie swaps are always a great party idea so you won’t end up with a white elephant gift. Or, you can be mindful when regifting or repurposing. I’m totally ok with regifting as long as I know the person I’m giving to will really enjoy that gift.
- If you are bringing a gift to exchange at a party, try reusable straws, tea towels, nice handkerchiefs, or a thermos. I’d try to opt for something that helps to reduce the receiver’s waste.
Alright!!! We did it! We got through every tip I could think of for a simple, slow and sustainable Holiday. What tips would you add?