by Wendy Priesnitz
The various holidays – like Easter, Christmas,
Valentine's Day, and Halloween –
have traditionally been important times in the life of many families. These
occasions are great opportunities for sharing the principles behind our
lifestyles and beliefs with others, especially with young children. But if your
extended families and friends aren’t as environmentally or socially aware as you
are, the commercial hype surrounding these occasions – not to mention birthdays
– can be troublesome. For many, they are just another commercial opportunity,
benefiting greeting card and candy manufacturers, and often become orgies of
excess packaging and unhealthy eating, tempting some to try to ignore them
altogether. But there are ways to enjoy these times with our families and
friends, but not forsake healthy living and our eco-ethics.
Although Halloween doesn’t pose a gift problem, it does have its own billion dollar consumption issues, as families spend big on costumes and candy. Aside from the stomachaches and headaches resulting from all that sugar, Halloween results in a huge pile of discarded candy wrappers, goodie bags, plastic pumpkins, masks and costumes.
Halloween costumes are hugely influenced by commercial media, with fads being driven by television shows and movies. So families might find this a good place to inject some media literacy into their discussions.
Rather than buy a new costume you (or your child) will only wear once and throw away, make one out of clothes and fabrics you already have. You can also create costumes from items purchased at thrift shops and yard sales. Swap costumes with neighbors and friends. And if you can’t escape purchasing an off-the-rack version, at least donate it to your local daycare center or shelter after the big night.
Plastic goodie bags are totally unnecessary. Your kids can collect their candy in reusable buckets, wicker baskets, canvas bags or pillowcases.
When you're buying treats to give out at your door, choose items that come in a minimum amount of packaging. Or skip the candy altogether in favor of useable treats like pencils, pens, magnets, erasers or other trinkets (but keep them useful or else you’ll defeat the purpose.)
If you’re having an adult or mixed-age Halloween party, serve healthy and seasonal foods. Make good use of the pumpkin theme, not just in decorations but it food too. After you’ve carved a face into the pumpkin, dry and spice the seeds for nutritious snacks. The tender insides can be pureed for soups, mashed for pies or spiced up for a main vegetarian entrée, such as an Indian curry or pumpkin chili. And don’t forget to purchase your pumpkin at a farmers’ market or local farm stand in order to minimize its “food miles” and support your local producers.
Here are some ways to save money and protect the planet while still spreading Christmas cheer.
Give yourself and the environment a break this Christmas.
Leave all those fragile and fiddly, dust-attracting, energy-guzzling decorations
in the basement, sell them at a garage sale or donate them to a charity. You
don’t have to go overboard with the picture perfect decorations in order to
enjoy the spirit of the season. Decorate with kids’ art, a few cherished
heirlooms, some colorful fruit and greenery, and if you must have a tree, buy a
potted one and plan to grow it in your garden next year (or try to locate an
organically grown one if you can’t change the cut tree tradition).
Do you enjoy holiday baking but don’t have a lot of time?
Host a cookie swap among your friends and neighbors, where each of you makes a
few dozen of one kind of cookie and gets together over a coffee or glass of wine
(organic, of course) to share them among yourselves. This way each person has a
great cookie assortment without all the work.
The gift-giving tradition can be one of the mostly costly,
stressful and environmentally unfriendly aspect of Christmas or any other
celebration. And it’s one that many people would like to change. In fact, in a
survey conducted on behalf of World Vision, 84 percent said they would rather
have a holiday gift given to a charity in their name than receive more socks or
Consider having a “Buy Nothing
Christmas.” That’s the name of an initiative started by a Mennonite group in
Manitoba. Co-founder Aiden Enns modeled the idea on Adbusters magazine's Buy Nothing Day
campaign. “What a shame that it’s only one day, I thought,” says Enns. So he
decided to inject a spirit of radical simplicity into the whole Christmas
season…and Buy Nothing Christmas was born.
It’s not that Enns and his group are against giving things at
Christmas. “Gift-giving is important,” he says. “It’s a profound action, an
important glue that keeps communities strong, people less individualistic. But
this gift-giving impulse has been exploited by consumer capitalism and a market
that preys upon our appetite for wasteful gadgets and soon-obsolete fashions.”
Gift-giving shows affection, thoughtfulness and love, he says. “While
gift-giving is a good thing to do at Christmas, that doesn’t mean we have to go
So the solution is to give a personal gift. That could
involve giving someone a gift of your own artwork, a collection of meaningful
photos, a collection of favorite family recipes, a shared trip to a movie, a
coupon for babysitting to new parents or a charitable donation in the giftee’s
And definitely make your own gifts. One of the advantages is
that you lessen or eliminate the time spent at the mall. Use that time together
with your family and friends instead. Host a potluck meal during the holiday
season. Keep it simple for everyone but make getting together a priority. Invite
some other families for a walk in the park or for a sledding party. Spend an
evening by candlelight just telling family stories – all electronic media gets
When you do buy things, remember principles like buying
locally-produced, fairly-traded products with environmentally friendly or no
packaging. Recycling or re-using is also a good principle to keep in mind when
considering Christmas gifts. Any way you do it, you can challenge our
over-consumptive lifestyle and how it affects global disparities and the earth.
Instead of buying wrapping paper, use younger children’s
artwork as wrapping paper. Or reuse old paper, like the Sunday comics section,
old maps and decorated paper grocery bags. Or wrap a gift in a colorful piece of
scrap fabric or make the wrapping part of the gift...as in encasing a sushi bowl
and chopsticks in a tea towel, or some bathroom soap in a plush bath towel.
The birthday party should be an occasion for nurturing an
appreciation for life, friends and family...and to celebrate another year of
growing. However, it can easily become a mini ecological and health disaster.
So you can begin to turn that around by starting with the
invitations. Your family can craft them from their own handmade paper, or simply
recycle cards or paper you’ve saved from other occasions. Or you could use email
or phone to invite people. Keeping the invitation list small will make this
process easier and make the group intimate enough that you can chat with each
parent about your wishes regarding gifts and food, while minimizing the chaos
that parties can create.
Decorations can be one of the most wasteful aspects of any
party. While latex balloons are considered to be non-toxic, they will
accumulate, along with other plastic debris, in an animal’s or fish’s stomach
and intestines, often blocking the passage of food and causing the animal to
starve to death. The ribbons and strings attached to balloons have been found
wrapped around the necks and beaks of shorebirds, also causing starvation. As an
alternative, cut small streamers from old sheets or fabric scraps and hang them
where they will dance in the breeze.
Decorate larger pieces of cloth with fabric paints and use
them as table cloths and napkins. You can personalize them for the occasion and
reuse them for future celebrations, accumulating an ongoing record of the
And, of course, it should go without saying to use reusable
dishes and utensils. Thrift shops and flea markets are a good source of
inexpensive dishes; colorfully mismatched ones will add to the party atmosphere.
You can also dispense with party favors, especially if the
children are small and haven’t yet been exposed to other, more commercial
birthdays. If you think they will be missed, replace plastic trinket-filled
paper goody bags with cloth bags stitched from old fabric and filled with bean
bags, wooden toys, pencils and notepads, or flower bulbs. Or make the favors
part of the fun by staging a craft activity. Kids might enjoy painting tiny
wicker baskets to take home, creating something from homemade play dough, or
making tie dye t-shirts or bird feeders from pine cones covered in peanut butter
and bird seed.
A themed party can sometimes take care of the health and
ecological issues all by itself. Why not arrange an outing to a local
pick-your-own farm or a field walk in a local park focusing on common wild
edible plants? Or make the environment the theme with a party where everybody
wears green and brings something ecologically friendly, and where the food is
proudly organic and locally sourced. Or hold a fairy tale party where everyone
dresses like their favorite character and contributes to the adoption of a
relevant zoo animal in lieu of gifts. A puppy-themed party might benefit an
animal shelter and have relevant snacks and decorations. An old-fashioned party
could involve making hand-cranked ice cream and having bowls of soap suds for
Gift can be a huge problem at children’s birthdays.
Grandparents and other close relatives can be encouraged to give books or
consumables like scent-free markers, play dough or art supplies. Memberships to
a children’s museum, art gallery or zoo are other great choices; people can pool
their funds if the membership is expensive. Magazine subscriptions and gifts of
time – a fishing trip or day at the park – are other possibilities.
Ask party guests to bring an item of outgrown clothing or a
gently used book or toy. These could then be donated to a shelter or relief
organization. Or specify that they bring something they have created themselves,
such as artwork or craft items, poems they have written, compilations of
favorite jokes, recipes or songs on a CD or a plant they’ve grown from seed.
Afterwards, written material and artwork can be bound into a book to remind your
child about the party.
If gifts are to be part of the
birthday party, specify that they arrive unwrapped or enclosed in something
non-commercial like newspaper cartoons or fabric. One family we know created a
personalized gift wrapper for each family member, using scraps of cloth sewn
together as patchwork. They were reused year after year and became a record of
each person’s history as birthday and holiday events were embroidered on them
marking things like “First Bicycle,” “Sweet Sixteen” and so on.
Easter is the most important religious feast of the Christian
year. But as with many other Christian events, the celebration of Easter extends
beyond the church. Ancient civilizations celebrated spring by feasting and pagan
fertility traditions and symbols have, over the centuries, become part of Easter
celebrations, inviting us to be optimistic about life and renewal, a sentiment
that is much needed these days.
Eggs have been symbols of fertility, rebirth and abundance
since the beginning of human civilization. The tradition of giving a chocolate
egg to mark the end of Lent dates back to at least the 19th century. Giving
candy eggs at Easter might seem like a harmless extension of that tradition, but
it’s one that can harm the health of both children and the environment. Some
FDA-approved food dyes are made from coal tar and other petroleum products, so
they’re not necessarily healthy or eco-friendly.
According to Jane Hersey, Director of the Feingold
Association, Easter candies can contain sodium Hexametaphosphate, Malic Acid,
Blue 1, Mineral Oil, PGPR, Red 40, Magnesium Stearate, Yellow 5, Sorbitan
Mono-stearate, Blue 2, Polysorbate 60, Invertase, Yellow 6. Studies have shown
that synthetic food dyes, artificial flavoring, and certain preservatives found
in many candies and processed foods can trigger hyperactivity and attention
problems in sensitive children. So read labels and buy natural jelly beans,
chocolates and other candies at natural food markets. Also beware those waxy
chocolate eggs and bunnies and look for the fair trade and organic chocolates
that are becoming increasingly easier to find.
Hersey also suggests feeding your children breakfast before
letting them indulge in Easter candy, in order to reduce the amount of sugar
they eat. And replace some candy with dried pineapples, figs or dates, which are
much more nourishing. You could also put a toy or stuffed bunny or chick in the
Easter basket to help take the emphasis off sweets.
Dyeing your own real eggs can be a healthier substitute for
candy. But beware of the dyes that you use. Most egg dye kits are labeled as
non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean they are free of harmful ingredients. Look for
plant-based dyes instead. The most enjoyable and educational solution is to
create your own natural dyes by experimenting with foods like spinach, orange
peel and red cabbage (which produces a blue coloring, not red). To create a
colored design on an egg using yellow onion skins, wrap the dry outer skins
around a raw egg and hold them in place with a rubber band. Hard boil the egg,
unwrap it and you’ll have a lovely random design and rich orange/gold color on
your egg. For a lovely pink egg, soak a hard boiled egg overnight in beet juice.
The baskets that traditionally carry all those eggs can be
problematic too, all too often finding their way into the trash a few days after
Easter. Look for alternative containers like small plastic wagons, dump trucks,
book bags, toy carrying cases and other things that can have a second life after
Easter. Small laundry baskets, recycling containers or wastebaskets can be
decorated with stickers, markers, ribbon, fabric strips or raffia. And skip the
petroleum-based plastic “grass” in favor of natural products like sprouted wheat
grass or raffia, or recycled products like paper from your shredder.
Older children might enjoy foregoing the eggs and fuzzy
chicks altogether in favor of a plant pot, some heirloom seeds and soil so they
can grow their own herbs or small veggies.
Members of your extended family might not be in agreement
with your desire for a healthy, eco-Easter. Nevertheless, don’t be afraid to
share your concerns about too much chocolate, candy dyes or excess packaging.
Give them some alternative suggestions. Or ask them to join in some fun
activities, like experimenting with natural dyes on a few dozen hard-boiled eggs
or participating in an Easter Egg hunt.
Or hold a recycled Easter bonnet
parade with everyone crafting a unique piece of headgear out of scrap materials.
Or plant some trees. Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai has
called on people around the world to plant trees at Easter as a symbol of
renewal and to protect the planet. “If it was a worldwide campaign it would be
wonderful; you can imagine the millions of trees that would be planted,” Maathai
said when she received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai, a Christian who has
led plantings of 30 million trees across Africa to combat
deforestation, thinks that an annual tree-planting drive could symbolize revival
for all peoples. Easter is a good time, she says, because Christians believe
that Christ was crucified on a wooden cross, which must have necessitated the
felling of a tree.
One family we know stages a family Spring cleaning event on
Easter weekend. They think up the chores at a family meeting and then write them
on pieces of paper and put them into a big jar. Each person takes a slip of
paper and runs off to complete the chosen task within a certain time limit. When
their chore is completed, they take a fair trade chocolate egg from a second
jar. With some energizing music on the stereo and everybody sharing the work,
the cleaning is accomplished in a short period of time, often accompanied by
lots of hugs and laughter.
Lastly, preparing and sharing healthy food is a great way to
celebrate any occasion, especially the beginning of the growing season. Host a
potluck with a theme, such as only local food, or one that puts you in touch
with people in the developing world by using cookbooks like The More-With-Less
At Valentine's Day, many people’s thoughts
turn to images of heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Fortunately, hearts
and chocolate go very well together...especially if it's high
quality dark chocolate. Scientists at the
John Hopkins University School of Medicine have found that a few
squares of dark chocolate a day can reduce the risk of a heart
attack by almost fifty percent in some people. Apparently, substances
in cocoa beans have a biochemical effect similar to aspirin in
reducing blood platelet clumping, which can be fatal if it leads to
a clot that blocks a blood vessel. In other words, it functions in
the same way as aspirin in preventing heart attacks. In spite of these health claims, there’s no getting
around the fact that chocolate is a high fat food.
Nevertheless, you can give a gift of dark chocolate without guilt –
especially if it is Fair Trade.
Wine is another staple of a loving celebration. So be sure that the wine you
buy to toast your Valentine is made from organically grown grapes. Organic wines
also contain no added sulfites as preservatives, so your red wine toast won't
cause her to have a headache! Organic wines from local growers are the most
environmentally-friendly choice because they have not been shipped long
You'll want to turn the lights down low while you're celebrating with that
Fair Trade dark chocolate and organic wine. And that's always a great way to
save energy! But be sure that the candles you choose are made from beeswax or
soy instead of paraffin. They are made from natural materials, will last longer
and you won't be dirtying the air with soot. Unscented is better for your true
love's health, since most commercial scents contain harmful chemicals.
Flowers are the other favorite gift for Valentine's Day. Unfortunately,
giving a gift of cut flowers may not be the wonderful expression of love that
you intend it to be. That’s because whenever you or a loved one touches or
inhales the scent of your conventional bouquet, you are likely touching or
inhaling poisonous chemicals.
The floral industry is one of the heaviest users of hazardous agricultural
and processing pesticides. In addition, the majority of flowers sold in North
America are imported from countries like Ecuador and Columbia, where labor
practices are sometimes questionable. Studies by the International Labor Organization and Ecuador’s Catholic
University have found that many farm and post-harvest workers complain of
pesticide-poisoning symptoms. Women, who represent 70 percent of all rose
workers, experience significantly elevated rates of miscarriages and birth
So be sure you look for flowers and ornamental plants certified with the
Veriflora label. This certification program requires growers to use
pesticide-free, sustainable agriculture methods and includes fair treatment of
workers (health benefits, safe labor practices, fair wages, the right to
organize, etc.), water conservation, habitat protection, waste management and a
commitment to energy efficiency and responsible packaging. Bouquets with this
certification are increasingly available both in stores and online. Better
still, give flowers grown locally – again, increasingly
available. You might not be able to find local roses in February, so try to keep
an open mind as you choose.
And, again, check out the list of gift alternatives at
the end of this article for some unique, healthy, and eco-friendly ways to tell
someone of any age that you love them at Valentine's Day.
Children love personalized gifts, so create a simple book
about the child, written and illustrated by you.
Collect all the makings for hand puppets — brown lunch
bags, googly eyes, scissors, markers etc.
Record interviews of parents, grandparents, aunts and
uncles on audio or video tape; you can ask them to discuss their memories of
the person you plan to give the tape to, or your family’s history,
especially funny or meaningful anecdotes.
Frame one of your best photographs. Buy a frame from a
local business or artisan. Or make one yourself out of stiff paper or
cardboard, decorated with colored paper, old wrapping paper, beads and/or
leaves, small pinecones, or seeds.
Make your own calendar using cut-out pictures, photos,
Assemble a collection of favorite recipes.
Make a film of the kids
putting on a play. Send it to the grandparents with a holiday song as the
Bake a basket of muffins and cookies and deliver them to
Create a hand-decorated coupon for your best friend
promising a weekend of babysitting while she and her spouse take a weekend
away from the kids.
Create a coupon book of certificates for your children –
ten gift coupons for them to redeem during the year. One could promise a
Saturday afternoon building a playhouse. Another might be a “Play Hooky”
coupon promising that parent and child will just take off from work and
school one day in the coming year to take a rest. Another might be a promise
of tennis lessons or an afternoon of making cookies.
Your teenager could make a coupon to give to Dad,
promising to wash the car or to make dinner three times.
Promise your significant other some special activities –
a candlelit dinner, massage or outdoor activity that you both enjoy.
Assemble a gift basket with LED
lightbulbs, forms for getting rid of junk mail, healthy recipes, some
weatherstripping and cozy slippers.
Give a membership or a donation to a local cause such as
a soup kitchen, a shelter for battered women, a local environment group,
etc. Contact local churches, synagogues and charitable organizations for ideas.
The Rituals Resource Book: Alternative Weddings,
Funerals, Holidays and Other Rites of Passage by Susan Mumm (Alexandra Yul
Hundred Dollar Holiday:
The Case For A More Joyful Christmas by Bill McKibben (Simon & Schuster,
Treasury of Celebrations by Alternatives for Simple
Living (Northstone Publishing, 1996)
Celebrating the Great Mother: A Handbook of
Earth-Honoring Activities for Parents and Children by Cait Johnson, Maura
D. Shaw (Destiny Books, 1995)
Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting
Love and Joy Back into the Season by Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli
Alternative Celebrations Catalogue, 4th Edition by
Bob Kochtitzky (Alternative Books, 1978)