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With all the shiny wrapping paper, presents, lights, and huge quantities of "stuff" in general, it’s easy to forget that celebrating the holidays doesn’t have to equal big-time spending and consuming. And despite the religious beginnings of some of our favorite winter holidays, there is a natural connection for several with the world around us, particularly the winter solstice. For centuries, countries around the world have incorporated the natural world into their holiday festivities as a way to celebrate their surroundings and the spirit of the season. Read on for eco-friendly and natural holiday traditions from around the world and be inspired to incorporate them into your own family's traditions.
Warm countries like Brazil have it easy: decorations often include flowers picked from the garden. Likewise, Australians decorate with Christmas Bushes, which are native plants with little red-flowered leaves. For the rest of us, we can find locally or sustainably sourced holly bushes or make displays from twigs. After opening presents, get the kids outside for a nature walk to pick up fallen local foliage to turn into a centerpiece. Other ideas: paint with leaves on butcher paper for an easy holiday tablecloth or decorate pinecones with some eco-friendly paint and a dash of glitter!
Christmas trees themselves may have had their origins in ancient or pagan rituals, but the modern tradition can be traced to Germany several hundreds of years ago. Choosing a tree from a local, sustainable tree farm is a great option, and you can even decorate it with apples, nuts, and dates as people once did, instead of ornaments!
The craziness of the holidays and the endless parade of parties and school concerts can make everyone feel a little out of sorts. Make sure to set aside holiday time at home to unplug. Set the mood one evening by using candles instead of electricity. In Sweden, the lead up to the Christmas holiday includes St.Lucia Day, which is celebrated with a young girl wearing a crown of candles. We can’t vouch for the safety of that age-old tradition, but your family can turn off the tv and holiday specials in favor of some good old-fashioned games or even a holiday-themed version of charades or Pictionary (or simply relax in front of the fire).
No need to be a Scrooge over the holidays and ban presents completely. Choosing thoughtful, eco-friendly toys is a great way to show your kids how to consume wisely and responsibly. Older kids especially can begin to understand how supporting eco-conscious companies can have a ripple effect. Another tradition that allows presents yet cuts down on consumption is having each family member pick the name of one other person to buy a special present for.
Gifts are a part of Kwanzaa but the holiday stresses educational, practical, or handmade presents which are thoughtful and which support a number of the ideals of the holiday including learning and respect for heritage. Books are a typical example, and one present that can be enjoyed over and over again and passed to future generations. Another idea for gifts? Skip out on the “things” and gift an experience, such as a cultural event, or cultivate your kids’ love of science and nature with a membership to a science museum or farm sanctuary, for example.
Vegetarian and nature-inspired food
For many Americans, Christmas meals means potroast or ham. Going veg (even once a week) is a great way to support the environment, so why not start for the holidays? You’ll be in good company: In Russia, the meatless Christmas Eve feast includes a specialty porridge that includes ingredients such as wheatberries, honey, and poppy seeds, for happiness and prosperity. Of course, the favorite food at Chanukah time is already vegetarian-latkes, also known as potato pancakes!
Nature can also find its way onto the table: during Kwanzaa a tableplace is set up and displayed with vegetables such as dried corn representing the number of children in the family and crops like plantains or bananas representing the rewards of hard work. In France, a popular (and beautiful) dessert is the buche de noel, a cake made to look like a tree trunk. Challenge yourself to make a vegan one and have little ones help decorate it!
In France, the pain calendau or Christmas loaf tradition includes cutting a type of sweet bread and giving part to a less fortunate person. In India, the holidays are a time of bakheesh or a charitable giving for people of several religions. It’s clear that giving back during the holidays is a worldwide trend, and it is a wonderful way to demonstrate to our children how important it is to give to others and the holidays extend beyond getting presents.
There are so many ways to give back during the holidays with your kids (even if you don’t choose to give to an environmental cause, per se)-from preparing or serving food at a soup kitchen, to baking healthy treats for a women’s shelter, to organizing a book or toy drive. Challenge your family to a “12 days of giving” challenge and think about fun ways to spread holiday cheer to others every day. You can keep it as simple as giving away any change you find in your pockets or under the couch or writing a special note to teachers or other special people in your family’s life!
Kindness to animals
Scandinavians seem to have a special holiday place in their hearts for animals: placing seed outside for the birds is a tradition in Denmark, and in Finland, grain, nuts, and seeds are tied together and put in the garden. According to tradition, Christmas dinner has to wait until the birds have had their meal! To get in on this holiday habit, have kids create an edible craft for non-human buddies.
For a while, animal shelters greatly reduced the amount of adoptions that they allowed during the holidays since so many dogs and cats were given too hastily as holiday gifts and then returned. While some shelters have changed the rules and now encourage adoptions during the holidays, what hasn’t changed is the need for food and blankets and other basics for these animals. Call a local shelter and make a holiday drop-off with the kids. They may even get the always-exciting opportunity to visit with some furry friends while they are good-doing.