01 November 2009
Simplify and strengthen Christmas
With Christmas celebrations becoming bigger than ever, Lucy Cooper looks at ways to make the season easier both for you and the planet...
The first Christmas was on a rather tight budget. Mary, a young mum, could not pop down to the job centre for child benefit, and the shepherds were surely on the minimum wage. The wise men gave up a life of relative luxury to travel for days on uncomfortable camels. But these participants in the first Christmas certainly were not short of love, family time and meaning.
Like many people, I usually get so stressed about shopping, cooking and whether Sainsbury's has any cranberry sauce left that taking the time out to think about God's gift to the world can be relegated to a couple of hours at the carol service and church on Christmas morning.
Every year, the months before Christmas fill me with concerns and questions: do I have good enough gifts for everyone? How can I make it bigger and better than last year? Have we got sufficient food to cope when the shops shut for two days? And how will I afford it all?
This year, that last question hangs over the Christmas cheer more than usual, especially for families who have lost jobs in the recession. Then there's the guilt or concern that I might be exploiting or ignoring the poor. And add to this depressing statistics that reflect the environmental damage we contribute to annually, such as three million tonnes of Christmas waste - that's enough to fill 350,000 double-decker buses.
But does it have to be this way? Just because something is "what we do at Christmas", is it obligatory or even very meaningful? Surely we can have a joyful, Jesus-centred holiday that's less materialistic, more generous and more ethical.
De-cluttering the holidays
As the Alliance's Simplify campaign developed, I and many others have allowed our lifestyle and mindset to be challenged. By living on a benefits-sized budget in October, we learned to identify with those who live on less all the time. And we were inspired to continue increasing our generosity as we gave the remaining money away. Surely Christmas is another perfect time to continue this practice - to live small and think big.
Developed by Morningside Baptist Church in Edinburgh, Just Christmas is a project that encapsulates the essence of Simplify by recognising that Christmas is a time of giving. The challenge is to live on half the money that would usually be spent during the festive season and give the rest of the money to the poor.
Senior Pastor Karl Martin says, "If Christmas is about more, eating and spending, then there is something poor about that. We need to buy into the Christmas story and recapture the message of giving. By spending less, we then have a greater opportunity to share with those who have nothing."
Ruth Valerio, contributor to the Living Lightly campaign run by A Rocha, is also a firm believer that Christmas does not have to mean excess and that it can be celebrated simply and ethically. "The two big things you can simplify for Christmas are food and presents," she says. "For presents, there are so many different ideas; you might ask people to buy you an alternative gift through an agency like World Vision to benefit the poor, or you might set a gift budget or say that each family member just gets one present."
And then there's the food. "The great thing about Christmas dinner is that almost everything - the turkey and all the vegetables - can be sourced locally, which makes it more ethical," she says.
As someone who isn't particularly organised, the planning and budgeting stage was one of the hardest bits of Simplify for me. But I discovered it was essential, just like having a shopping list, in order to prevent me from getting swept away by habit or temptation.
A little planning can also get me off the treadmill to enjoy a simpler Christmas. I need to take time to ask what gifts could be made instead of bought? Where can I find environmentally friendly and ethical presents? How can I spend more time with people instead of in the shops? How can I spend less in order to give more?
Showing appreciation to someone does not have to involve the biggest and best stuff; it's usually more meaningful if we invest creativity and inspiration. Assembling a photo book or family calendar would be a special memento, as would making jam, giving away allotment produce or creating new gifts from old things in the house.
My mum loves being offered a couple of hours cleaning, ironing or computer assistance, because that is valuable to her, especially as she can request it at the moment of need. Some friends realised their nephew had already got every toy he could possibly need, so decided to start giving their time to him as an alternative present. He really enjoys their trips to the cinema or bowling alley, and they are delighted to spend more time getting to know him.
These gifts of time or expertise bring joy long after the Christmas rush. And perhaps we can give away the money we save to people whose lack of funds means they find Christmas a particularly painful time of year. "Simplify is about reviewing how we live and tightening our belts in order to benefit others," says Steve Clifford, who piloted Simplify with his wife Ann in August. "The Christmas message is God's message of generosity to all humanity, so Christmas is an ideal time to re-think practically how we celebrate Christmas in order to be generous."
Lucy Cooper is a press officer at the Alliance
Simple Christmas tips
- Hold a clothes swap for sparkly new outfits for that holiday party.
- Explore options for alternative gifts; check out craft markets or Fairtrade stalls.
- Buy an organic turkey, get seasonal veg from a farmers' market, plan portions and use any leftovers.
- Recycle your Christmas tree and cards and take unwanted gifts to a charity shop.
- Wrap gifts creatively using last year's paper or material; use string or ribbon instead of tape.
- Make your own decorations from old CDs, boxes or bottles, or go natural with holly, ivy and pine cones.
- Turn off the Christmas lights in the day, fully load your dishwasher before switching it on and ask Santa for low-energy light bulbs.
- Look for ethical gift ideas at simplify.org.uk/christmas