Posts Tagged ‘green holiday’

The Crankypants Guide to a Green Holiday

This is my idea of a Christmas tree. Photo credit: Humboldthead

Around this time of year, my Twitter feed explodes with things like, “Eco-friendly tree decorations!” and “Greenest stocking stuffers!” and “How to make eco-friendly tinsel out of Capri-Sun wrappers!” It’s all well-intentioned (or mostly; some of it is still trying to sell you stuff you don’t need and will never want), but at the same time, I have to wonder: how green can you really make the highest-impact, most wasteful holiday of the year by replacing things you don’t need with slightly lower impact versions of things you don’t need? 


Uh. Sorry. I think my Grinch is showing. But tongue firmly in cheek, I came up with a list of revised suggestions for a [more] eco-responsible[-ish] holiday. You know, for grouchpuss greenies. Extreme? Nah…

  • Be poor if you can possibly help it. (And if you can’t, I have to think that you’re not trying hard enough.) Poverty is the single best way to cut down on decorations, gift-giving, traveling, and impulsive holiday buys, like the bouncy inflatable Santa my neighbors down the street have. I’m finding that it also forces me to be more creative. Instead of buying stuff this year, I’m reusing, doing without, or coming up with creative workarounds and unusual presents (dress altering services, anyone?). Also, I hope you really, really like my pottery.
  • Stop traveling to see people you don’t like. Sharing DNA is not a good reason to spend your time or your carbon dioxide on people you can’t stand. I don’t recommend this as a networking strategy, but it works amazingly well if you want some extra time and peace for the holidays. And in the same vein:
  • Stop buying presents for people you don’t like. With regards to the people we don’t know well or like much, yet still feel obliged toward…can’t we just come to a non-gift agreement already? A plate of cookies and a card, maybe? A handshake to imply goodwill without the transfer of material goods?
  • Put off inessentials until the last minute. If you’ve waited till now to get up your Christmas lights, you might as well not do it at all because it’s so much effort for a two week show. I’ve had finals up until yesterday, so I’ve been putting off everything, with the end result that I am not likely to bake cookies, write cards, or make a mix CD this year. It’s okay. Every couple years is fine.
  • Try a non-meat-based holiday dinner. Taste-wise, Tofurky is somewhere between a rubber tire and a salt lick. But if you’re already feeling glutted (Thanksgiving was only a month ago) or guilty about the impact of your holiday ham, there are lots of tasty, meatless, or low-meat alternative holiday dinners. How about pumpkin and sage pot pies? A mushroom and tarragon pate? I have my eye on a couple of veggie holiday recipes to try this year.
  • Draw a line between doing things out of tradition and doing things that are meaningful to you. As the daughter of an angry ex-Catholic schoolgirl mother and a vaguely Confucian father, I can’t say that my family ever went all out for Christmas. But we did do the tree, the presents, the holiday ham. As a tree lover, I can’t bear the thought of cutting down a live tree just for decoration. As a tree hugger, I can’t see myself getting a fake tree. And as a vegetarian, I’m not about to go for the Christmas ham. So that leaves presents (but not many of them, because I’m poor), which I genuinely enjoy taking the time to choose or make, wrap, and give. Kevin and I also like to go for a drive in the redwoods on Christmas day, which isn’t very green, but has become a tradition that we’re willing to swap out others for.

My bottom line is the same as it usually is. Cut out the stuff that doesn’t actively, actually make you happy. Enjoy the stuff that does. And don’t let social expectations bully you into doing otherwise. Happy non-denominational winter holiday of choice!

I’m off school until the end of January, which is exciting because chemistry gobbled up all my brain bandwidth and left me gibbering about acid-base equilibria and stoichiometry and volumetric flasks. (You know this if you follow me on Twitter.) I have a few posts that I just haven’t had the brain space to write, so I’ll get those up and catch up with your blogs and resume normal functions until the next semester starts. Hope you’ve been well!

In defense of wrapping paper

Part of my giftwrap stash


As a non-exuberant, non-religious, non-sociable sort of person, I don’t really do holidays. As always, not doing anything is agreeably low impact.  I cringe at the thought of chopping down a perfectly good tree just to prop it up in my house for a month, and I don’t need the symbolism of a fake tree, so I don’t have a Christmas tree. I can’t be bothered to decorate, so I don’t have lights, ornaments, statues, or vaguely sinister inflatable Santas. I don’t like my relatives, so I don’t travel to see them.  I hate malls, so presents tend to be locally handmade (ideal) and selectively given.

But then there’s my not-s0-secret giftwrap obsession. I love paper, always have. I grew up buried in books, went through prolonged origami and stationery phases, and still rhapsodize over the buttery softness of cotton fibre laid paper. Even knowing the environmental impact, I look forward to the new crop of giftwrap every year. I’m picky and rarely get more than two rolls a year, but over the years, I’ve accumulated more than my fair share of vintage-y penguins, elegant deer, woodland animals, swirly motifs, and wintry botanical prints.

Rhonda at Good Green Witch ranted about the wastefulness of wrapping paper earlier this week.  She’s absolutely right that wrapping paper is a stupid expenditure of resources. My rational side won’t attempt to deny it. But getting that roll or two every December makes me happy — I really love good design, and being able to afford and make use of good design is even better. And wrapping presents makes me happy. My old origami habits kick in, and soon I’m making elaborate pleat folds around the top of a cylinder, pinching crisp mitred corners, tucking, angling, valley-folding — until I have a small pile of tidy, even artsy, wrapped parcels. It’s surprisingly meditative and calming.

It’s not a green habit, but I’ve tried to make it less…brown. Large pieces of wrapping paper get saved and reused the following year. Everything is either 100% recyclable or recycled. And as I’ve said, I don’t buy a lot of presents, so I don’t go through very much of it.

I noticed I was getting a little defensive while reading Rhonda’s post. I don’t have many cherished holiday traditions and have done away with all the ones that I didn’t enjoy. Wrapping paper is one of the ones I’m not ready to let go of yet. Maybe never. Should I feel guilty about it?

I often come to the conclusion that being green shouldn’t be some form of self-flagellation. I didn’t sacrifice anything when I gave up the tree, the ham, or the lights — they were things I didn’t need or want in my life. But maybe they’re important to you, and you’ve made a conscious decision to keep just the holiday traditions that really matter to you. Fine. Everything we do has an impact. It’s my goal to choose wisely — just the stuff that genuinely makes me happy — and accept that other people will choose differently.

Happy winter holiday of choice.

This is what I’ve been busy with:

I’m going to be selling at my first pottery show this Friday and Saturday at the Sunnyvale Community Center. If you’re in the San Jose Bay Area, please come by and check it out!

Opting out of the holidays

My mother is an events organizer and often takes the same [dictatorial, no-ifs-ands-or-buts] approach to her family. As a result, we ended up squeezing an abbreviated form of Christmas into Thanksgiving break. No decorations, no stockings, no cookies, just a bare bones gift exchange in which no one really got anything she would have bought on her own. (See this economist’s excellent take on why you should never give another gift.)  I wasn’t happy about having so much less time to find and make presents this year, but now that it’s over, I am officially disconnected from everyone else’s mad holiday rush for the first time in my life. I love it.

Winter has two faces for me. There’s the tinsel-laced juggernaut up to December 25, and then the solitary, reflective January. The problem is that by January, I’m already tired of winter. This year, I get to indulge in wintry solitude while still reveling in the delicate powdering of frost outlining leaves in the morning, still relishing the unfurling of warm breath in cold air, still loving the stillness of a [mostly] dormant world. (It is California, after all.) I’m so much less distracted this year. I guess I never realized how much headspace buying and making presents and getting everything ready really takes.

I haven’t truly opted out, but I’m getting a good sense for what it would be like. I’m drifting an inch or two above family squabbles, shopping deadlines, conspicuous overeating, advertisers’ enticements, and the visual discordance of red and green (surely two colors that were never meant to be together). I’m realizing that I participated for all these years, not because I necessarily wanted to, but because I didn’t think I had a choice to sit it out. I do. So do you. The price is seeming ungracious, unsociable, and disrespectful of tradition. The results are not trashing the planet with unnecessary consumerism, making time for yourself and your brain, and enjoying winter without the clutter of the holidays.

Is it worth it? Probably not every year, not wholly, not for everyone. But some years, in part, for some people? Absolutely.

The Veg Holiday Survival Guide

Once I hit my teens, I spent most holiday dinners in my room, giving my turkey to the cat. I hated the relatives who came over, hated the joviality, and wasn’t going to be pleasant or social if it killed me. (Oh, teenagers.) But I have to say, the loneliest and hardest Christmas dinner I’ve ever experienced was the one I spent with only my immediate family plus my sister’s boyfriend the year I stopped eating meat. My dad hated my boyfriend, so he wasn’t invited.  That left me the only vegetarian at a table full of meat enthusiasts. My mother didn’t bother to prepare a vegetarian main dish, so I picked at green beans on the far end of the table while everyone else dug into the ham. I never felt so rejected in my life. 

My parents were, shall we say, unenthused about my decision to go vegetarian. I can’t blame them; both grew up in poverty where an egg was a special occasion and meat happened a few times a year, on very special occasions. My dad, in particular, still associates meat with having made it in this country; being able to provide meat to his family was a mark of his success and hard work. To have his daughter voluntarily reject that ideology and the culture it came from must have been rough.

Anyway. That was the main underlying experience behind my sentiment that one of the prices of vegetarianism (even more so veganism) is social and cultural. I’ve come to recognize that my parents won’t accommodate my vegetarianism, so it’s my responsibility to do what I can to make the whole holiday socializing thing bearable (when I absolutely can’t get out of it). Assuming you like people, you may be more willing to put effort into the following suggestions. And please, by all means, add to the list!

The Vegetarian/Vegan Holiday Survival Guide

  • Make sure your hosts know your dietary restrictions well in advance. Especially if they’re having a lot of people over, it’s possible they will forget. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but do mention it.
  • Decide how strict you’re going to be. There are three types of vegetarian dinner guest: 1) the type who tells the host beforehand that marshmallows, wine, and many brands of cane sugar are not vegan; 2) the type who asks about everything at the table; or 3) the type who compromises out of politeness and avoids what she can and doesn’t attempt an emetic after finding out there were marshmallows in the sweet potatoes.
  • Have a list of tasty possible recipes to suggest if your hosts ask what they can make you instead.
  • Express gratitude for any effort to accommodate you. Realize that you are, in fact, requiring them to put in more effort and time.
  • Offer to bring a dish. Make it a really good one so you can make a point that meatless food is, in fact, tasty and satisfying.
  • Host the meal yourself and treat your guests to an awesome meat-free meal filled with the vegetable bounty of the season.
  • Bring a fellow vegetarian for company. If all else fails and there’s nothing you can eat, at least you won’t be alone.

And just a handful of don’ts to keep in mind:

  • Don’t attempt to educate your fellow diners at the table on the cruelty implicit in their Thanksgiving turkey. It’s not gracious, it’s not good form, and it’s not likely to do you or your cause any good. Besides, they’re the ones with the carving knives.
  • Don’t think that it’s up to other people how well the evening goes. The work you put into it (or not) makes a huge amount of difference.
  • Don’t take this opportunity to remark on how surprising it is to you that all meat now smells like cat food to you. Even if it does.
  • Don’t give up on dining with omnivores. Although vegetarianism/veganism can be the basis of friendships, I’d like to think that the people I love and respect are more than their dietary choices.

Well, any horrific holiday experiences with omnivores to share? More tips? Bring it on!

Valentine’s Day Goes Green

I’ll say it straight out: Valentine’s Day is not my favorite holiday. To start with, I hate the color pink. I attribute this to both a tomboy past and the way it reminds me of raw flesh. Secondly, I don’t like heart shapes. For Valentine’s Day I once sent my boyfriend a sketch I had made of an anatomically correct heart, complete with aorta, chambers, and blood vessels galore. It was large. Colored. Surprisingly, he still wanted to marry me. Finally, I am so not a romantic. I don’t do forever. I don’t think giving someone the sexual organs of a plant (i.e. flowers) is particularly sweet. I roll my eyes at romantic cliches. Yup. That kind of girl.

That said, if you do care about Valentine’s Day, there are definitely things you can do to keep it from being a total failure in terms of eco-friendliness. As low impact as writing off Valentine’s Day altogether? Well, no. But not everyone can be a misanthropic Valentine’s Day hater. Here are some ideas for showing your love for your friends and the planet on the 14th.

1. Cards. I remember the huge bag of Valentine’s Day cards I would get every year in elementary school. Some were cute and came in tiny envelopes with pink hearts. Others were ugly and had Batman or Transformers on them. Regardless, they all got tossed within a week. If you have to do cards, you could go for recycled cards or make your own out of scrap paper and materials you already have at home. If you don’t have the time or money, simply swap out some of your paper cards for e-cards. Better yet, why not call the people you love, especially if you haven’t spoken recently?

2. Chocolate.  Does anyone actually think that Russell Stover counts as chocolate? Instead of buying highly processed and heavily packaged chocolate, why not go for delicious locally made chocolates? (Hint: filled chocolates really aren’t supposed to last longer than 2 weeks. If it expires in a year, don’t buy it.) My two local favorites are Dolce Bella (best raspberry truffles ever, made from raspberries she grows herself) and Saratoga Chocolates (ooh! melty-smooth!), but I bet there’s a good chocolatier near you. If not, how about organic or fair trade chocolate? Organic is kinder to the planet and our bodies, and fair trade is kinder to the people who make cacao beans possible.

3. Flowers. See any roses growing near you? No? That’s because roses are dormant in February, so all the bunches of long stem roses you see are either hot-house grown, or (more likely) imported. Imported flowers have often been drenched in pesticides and have certainly had larger carbon footprints than locally grown flowers. If you can’t find local flowers or just can’t give up the roses, consider choosing organic or fair trade blooms — at least to protect your lover and 3rd world workers from up to 1,000 times the pesticides found in conventional produce. I’ve also made my own bouquets out of origami irises, which aren’t difficult to fold.

4. Just say no to stuff. Nothing expresses your love like mass-produced commercial goods…right? It’s actually pretty easy to show the people you love how much you care without buying things. Offer a massage, make a dish or dessert they love, hang up your towel without being nagged. (And do it way more than once a year.) Buying is the easy way out. We’ve all been raised to be consumers, but being green is about getting away from stuff and getting back to the things that matter most: friendships, compassion, experiences.

Did I miss any tips? Leave a comment!

Why You Can’t Buy Yourself Green

As the holidays draw nearer, I expect that we will be barraged by lists of green holiday presents: presents that are recyclable or recycled, that reduce water or energy use, that are made from organic fabrics and fairly traded.

Speaking for myself, I love browsing the Rainforest Site shop. I think it has a genuinely quirky and cool collection of (somewhat) green items whose proceeds go to save the rainforest. I drool over the tree-motif, fairly traded fabric shopping bags (see right). I linger over the Roman glass jewelry. I consider doing all my holiday shopping there, irrespective of the interests and tastes of the poor folks on my gift list.

Surprisingly, the site’s association with saving rainforests tempts me to spend and buy more than I would otherwise do. The guilt I’ve come to associate with shopping vanishes because it suddenly has a good cause. It’s also harder for me to keep in mind the William Morris quote I shop by: “Have nothing in your home that you do not either know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” (This is the perfect compromise mentality for fellow materialists/aesthetes who can’t quite give up consumerism.)

But shopping is pretty much never a green activity, even if it’s for a good cause, even if you’re buying green goods, even if you only buy things you consider beautiful.

Anything you purchase has a certain cost in energy, carbon, resources, and labor. If you can get away without buying something new, it’s almost always going to be the greener move. It’s true that you can make better or greener purchasing decisions, and that those organic sheets or recycled plastic bags are a better choice than their non-green counterpart. But you’ll still be using resources and energy that you could preserve by simply reusing what you already have. (Seriously, does any of us need more fabric shopping bags?)

Today I saw a device that you can hook up to your car that will measure how much gas you’re wasting and how to reduce usage, and I wondered: is the total amount of gas being saved equivalent to the resources and pollution generated by developing, producing, and distributing this totally unnecessary gadget? Is there such a thing as a truly green gadget?

Being truly green probably isn’t very good for the economy in the short run, but our current consumer based economy isn’t sustainable in the long run, so we might as well nix the idea that we can buy ourselves to eco-friendly sainthood. Ideally, buying green would mean not only buying greener goods, but buying fewer of them and using them more wisely.  Consider it your holiday present to the Earth.

Oh, and as for presents? Why not contribute to someone’s solar power system fund?

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