My face may be unfamiliar, but you know my type. You’ve seen me at the farmers market—the woman with crow’s-feet and calloused hands, wearing a hand-me-down sweater, thrift store jeans, and barn boots. You’ve seen me at the health food store, with recycled jars to fill with olive oil and spices. I don’t buy kombucha; I make my own. I don’t buy tomato sauce; I can my own. I don’t buy skin care products; I just rub salve on my face that I make with lard (from my pigs) and beeswax (from my bees). In short, I try to live as sustainable a life as I can.

I live close to the land and I’m surefooted about my path. And it all made sense to my parents, who operate a farm with my husband and me, until we had our first child and were confronted with “the most wonderful time of the year”: Christmas.

The first Christmas Eve with my infant daughter, I clutched her to my chest while my mother stood with her face three inches from mine screaming “SCROOGE!” with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Sustainability was at war with Christmas.

Sustainability Almost Ruined Christmas

I guess it was inevitable. I tried to accept gift after gift with a bright smile, but I often found myself scowling at yet another piece of toxic, plastic, Baby Einstein crap. My throat closed tighter each time I wheezed out another “thank you” for something we didn’t want. I tried to stay polite. I tried not to show my dismay. But I wasn’t raised to hide my opinions either.

When I was growing up, Christmas for me had been similar—lots of gifts, tape, and wrapping paper. We generated an entire garbage bag of packaging waste by Christmas Eve and a second one by Christmas morning. Every year, holiday catalogs bombarded my family’s home from August through December with images of husbands expressing adoration to their wives with jewelry. Children’s faces were lit with joy at new toys splayed before them. Slender families indulged in an endless stream of holiday treats. Everyone was so happy. So healthy. So safe. So loved.

Sure, we had our troubles. As children, my brother and I would listen through the floor vent as my parents discussed the often dire economics of our struggling family farm and the stresses of their jobs. But at Christmas, the lights strung on the porch reminded us that we could be merry in the face of our worries. The pile of gaily wrapped presents underneath the tree was proof that, in spite of the financial fears, we were safe.

Fast forward twenty years to when I held my first daughter in my arms. The desire to use Christmas to fight back fear was still strong. But my fears were different. They were tied to anxieties about things like climate change, fossil fuel consumption, a crowded house, and a limited bank account. As much as I tried, the delight over stocking stuffers, wrapping paper, and battery-powered plastic thingamabobs didn’t outweigh my adult fears and anxieties.

Sustainability Almost Ruined Christmas

And as much as I wanted to cancel Christmas and put an end to the gifting madness, I couldn’t.

So I began experimenting with new customs, examining the how and why behind each tradition. If it didn’t hold up to our ethics and pocketbooks, we got rid of it. I systematically called every company that mailed us a holiday catalog and asked to be removed from their list. We stopped waiting for those images to define what made our Christmas merry. I focused on cooking dinner Christmas day and pared way back on the gifting. I swore off wrapping paper.

It was a difficult change for my parents. We limped along like that for a while, one challenging and imperfect Christmas after the next. And then, about three years ago, I noticed something. Christmas came. Christmas went. And we all had fun. The next year, it happened again. Last year, it happened once more. We didn’t have more money, greater health, or an easier life. But it was no longer about the madness of gifting and decorating.

Christmas has changed, and so have we. We sit together and fiddle with scraps of yarn, glue, and cardboard to create new ornaments for the tree. We express our love with words, time, and affection, rather than through spending. We enjoy true joys of the season—the stunning beauty of the changing light, the freedom to put our normal schedule aside and squeeze in an extra nap.

Now, Christmas means time for more cuddles, more giggles, and more choices to ignore phone calls and emails in favor of winter hikes and sledding. It means time to take pleasure from life, to engage in spiritual renewal, and to draw energy into our bodies for the coming new year. It means an opportunity to celebrate living lightly and to insure that our daily choices mean our children’s children may also have a beautiful world to enjoy on Christmas.

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Shannon writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her newest book is Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled. Learn more at

Tagged on: