Decking Your Halls and Greening Your Christmas

During the long dark winter months every culture prescribes a bit of a ‘blow out’ – a celebration of lights and abundance to get us through until spring.  Yet our own Christmas has become not so much a celebration of abundance as a consumer frenzy. For those of us concerned about spreading the abundance around to the billions of people who share this earth, the Christmas season prompts some careful and conscious decision making.

We can still have the fun and traditions. By supporting local and craft businesses and being aware of treading lightly on the earth’s resources, we can help achieve a fair distribution of gifts over the holiday season.

The Christmas tree was a much loved center of my own family’s celebrations.  Millions of pine, spruce and fir trees are cut down at this time of year.  Some local authorities run schemes at the end of the festive season where you can take your tree whittled down to wood chips that can be recycled. This is a responsible way of giving the trees a ‘second life’ as mulch. What came out of the ground goes back to the ground.

If that option is ruled out, consider getting a tree with a root ball that can be planted outside after the celebrations. That way you are buying some ‘carbon offset’ as the tree will mop up the CO2 emissions you will have contributed during the festivities.

Our personal solution was inspired not by ecological conscience examination.  It’s all because of the cat.

Four years ago our cat Zelda had her second litter in three months shortly before Christmas. We homed all but one of her kittens except Zymina or Minnie as she is affectionately known.

Minnie is a climber.  It was kind of cute when she scrambled inside of the Jade plant as a tiny kitten.  But with her second Christmas looming, I realised that my precious and fragile heirloom ornaments would never survive the depredations of cat with a climbing gene.

Our compromise is to bring in a topiary box hedge that lives in a pot outdoors the rest of year. An alternative might be a Norfolk Island pine or other small fir.  I decorate this tiny salute to my childhood Christmas memory with unbreakable and homemade ornaments.

Here are some ideas for non-fragile ornaments that you can recycle or compost.

1) Paper chains  – Use paper that has been recycled already and you help the planet twice over. Shiny paper does not biodegrade unless it specifically says so. You can compost the paper after 12th Night (Jan. 6).

2) Paper or white cardboard snowflakes – These can look good on the tree or can be a window decoration.  If you use the white cardboard that comes in packaging you give it a second life before it is either burnt on the fire or composted.

3) Popcorn and cranberry chains – These look fabulous on outdoor trees, too. The birds will be appreciative of having a share in the Christmas feast.

4) Use Christmas cookie cutters as templates for handmade ornaments.
I still use some needlepoint ornaments – Christmas trees, stars, snow man – I made around twenty years ago. They were small and quick projects with felt backing to coordinate with the colours.

I’ve also made salt dough ornaments.  Some have not survived in this damp climate where I live but they are fun to make. Since they are just salt and flour you could compost them at the end of the season.

This year I’m thinking of using some actual cookie cutters as decorations.  I was given some red plastic cutters that were used in my childhood. They must be getting on for sixty years old (if not older!) so they qualify as vintage (guess that counts for me, too!).

They are iconic of happy Christmas memories for me; also I have other cookie cutters that are easier to use but taking these out of the cupboard always makes me smile.  Before they get handed on to one of my nieces I feel they need to be shown off to the world.

5) Look for LED lights that make use of solar energy.  These are becoming easier to find and make sense when it comes to replacing Christmas lighting that cannot be resuscitated.

6) Lighting is central to the celebrations for both Christians at Christmas and Jews at Chanukah. Candles made from non-petrolium waxes such as beeswax or soy wax are kinder to the planet.

7) The Victorians made little posies of everlasting flowers (tussie mussies), as well as hanging edible ornaments like wrapped chocolates or gingerbread, and nature inspired ornaments like seashells, star fish and sand dollars.  Look at nature and see if you receive inspiration.

This year I’m going to have another go at the salt dough ornaments. I roll out the dough a little at a time and use my Christmas cookie cutters as templates.  Then I use a pencil to make a hole in the top large enough for some ribbon or string so I can hang the ornament on the tree.

Salt Dough Ornament Recipe

In a medium bowl, mix 2 cups of white, all purpose flour with 1 cup of salt.  Gently blend in 1 cup of water. Use your hands to make a pliable dough.  Keep moist and work in small batches.

To Decorate:

Water based paints – poster paints or acrylic – are the most eco-friendly choice if you want to colour your ornaments. If you have children in the household they will certainly want to spend a messy and enjoyable few hours painting them once they have baked.

If you don’t have a good dry place to store them over the year you can compost them at the end of the season.  If you do have a good storage place, you should varnish them with as eco-friendly a product as you can find. Sealing the ornaments with varnish will help them last for many years, even if you do live in a damp climate like Ireland. A few have made it for fifteen years before crumbling.

Important Note – Know your Oven:

Some recipes say to blithely bake for 1.and 1/2 hours at 325 degrees. I roll my cookie cutter ornaments quite thin and use the low, slow option.  If you have a range then use the oven with the lowest heat. But do keep an eye out as they can get done quite quickly even in a slow oven.

If you are unsure about how your oven will behave do a test batch that you are willing to toss out if things do not go as one hopes. I have a new oven this year and know that trial and error – and some advance test batches – are the rule rather than the exception.

Happy Decking your Household Halls!

About BeeSmith

I was born in Queens, N.Y, reared in Pennsylvania, did university in Washington, D.C. Then I moved to England for nineteen years. I lived first in London and then in Leeds. After my partner's sister died of cancer in 2000, we decided to take the leap of faith and move to Ireland to be nearer his family. Despite our friends thinking we were mad and feckless, it has worked out. The angels really do look after fools! We have a cottage on an acre and a quarter three miles from where the River Shannon rises. We have a polytunnel to grow vegetables and fruit organically, a small orchard of apple trees and plans to create a sacred space on the land over the rest of our lifetimes. We share our home with two tortoiseshell cats, Zelda and her daughter Zymina, and three dogs, Murphy, Pippin and Cara.