Julia Stephenson: I'm dreaming of a green Christmas

We'll send 1 billion cards, use 8,000 tons of wrapping paper and spend £1.2bn on unwanted gifts. But you can enjoy a glorious festive season and still be ecofriendly, says our green guru
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The Independent Online

Things are reaching boiling point in there this week as stressed shoppers wrestle over the wrapping paper and tussle over the tinsel, and this is reflected in high streets across the country as the festive terror kicks in for its final furlong.

Hurling myself into the street, I am absorbed into a mad maelstrom of swirling shoppers. I need all my wits to avoid the livid 4x4 drivers, frantic cyclists, aggressive OAPs driving tiny hatchbacks and furious white van men making Christmas deliveries.

Like most people, I wonder why I've been sucked into the pre-Christmas build-up yet again. We complain about it every year, but, like a festive groundhog day, the season takes me in its grip and I find myself weighted down with bags of baubles, staggering through the Bermuda triangle of Peter Jones, Harvey Nichols and Harrods.

Although none of us has disappeared, never to be seen again, after visiting this seductive shopping paradise, our cash and good humour certainly will: overspending and stress at Christmas lead to debt, bankruptcy, family breakdowns and the highest incidence of domestic violence for the whole year.

I'm no killjoy. I love Christmas in all its pagan, fir-tree wintry glory. I am bedazzled and uplifted by the non-ecofriendly blaze of Christmas lights in Sloane Square, roasting chestnuts, mulled wine, mince pies and the Salvation Army banging drums and shaking tins outside my flat.

But, like many of us, I wonder how what was once a glorious festive pageant, lighting up the dreariest, darkest days of the year, has turned into this exhausting three-month consumer orgy that leaves us shattered and skint by January.

Perhaps if we had more festivals throughout the year, our expectations from Christmas wouldn't be so huge. It's not even as if many of us are practising Christians any more. The collapse of our national religion, of traditional Christian precepts and the decline of the family, have been replaced with a ravenous materialism and an escalation of festive fanaticism. We have replaced our Christian God with a shiny, new material god. The Argos catalogue may have replaced the Bible, but it's a pretty poor substitute.

This new God is far more demanding than the Christian one, who was happy with a weekly appearance at church and a few kind thoughts. His replacement demands 24/7 attention and needs to be fed with an endless supply of unnecessary and planet-destroying things.

Despite our increasing disregard for Christian principles, we still have spiritual yearnings that aren't being satisfied. No matter how much we worship at the altar of the high street, or how many shiny shopping bags we collect, we remain frustrated and unsatiated.

For me, living "on top of the shop" has created a festive epiphany. This year I'm doing things differently, and I'm ditching the worst excesses of the festive rat race.

I only send a few Christmas cards anyway - not just because it's hard to find nice recycled ones and so-called charity cards give very little to charity, but because I am too lazy. However, the few I do send will be massively Christian in tone. Mary, Jesus, angels, mangers: bring it all on, I say.

I'm not a Christian (I have been a Buddhist for 15 years), but the Christmas story is heart-warming, peaceful and humanitarian, and part of the tapestry of our national culture.

Plus, I enjoy cocking a snook at the politically correct "Season's Greetings" gang, who think Christmas is offensive to non-Christians and want to ban the nativity plays, carol singing and traditional hymns that stir the spirit and which are some of the jolliest things about Christmas.

The one thing I would love to ban would be the huge amount of waste generated during the festive season. Even at normal times the UK produces enough rubbish to fill the Albert Hall in less than two hours. Imagine how much worse the excess packaging, plastic bags, wrapping paper, unwanted gifts and left-over food will make matters.

So, last year, trying to do our bit (though idleness was a contributory factor), my family insisted on a no presents rule. None of us wanted any more junk, plus several cousins have eschewed materialism completely to live in top-of-the-range tree houses. Plus, I have elderly relatives who have plateaued in their nineties (like turtles, they appear to be going on forever, pickled in a kind of bridge-playing bonhomie), and they didn't want anything.

Instead, we splashed out on lunch at a local restaurant, which was a great success. But, nightmare, towards the end there was a terrifying rummaging around in large handbags and a dazzling selection of "just in case" presents were taken out. I confess that I had a supply, too - I didn't want to be caught out. So it seems there is no escape from the mine-field of "competitive gifting".

This year my family again insist that there will be no presents, but I don't trust them and I am taking pains to ensure that my "just in case" presents are both beautiful and useful. I shall wrap them in pages of The Independent, left-over wallpaper and used brown paper decorated with holly and bay leaves from my roof garden.

I will fill string bags instead of stockings (available from www.naturalcollection.com). They stretch forever, are hugely strong and can be reused. Inside, I will put - according to need - ecofriendly light bulbs (www.ebulbshop.com), small money plants and vouchers for Eva Fraser facial workout lessons (www.evafraser.com) so that the recipient can cut down on pointless face creams.

I could also enclose a voucher with details of a weekly farm box delivery (www.farmaround.co.uk), which I will already have set up, a juicer and a bag of carrots, tickets for the London Eye, a bottle of biodynamic champagne (available from Waitrose) or perhaps a "greening up" session with my eco-coach, Donnachadh McCarthy.

A very generous but incredibly useful present would be to arrange for a water filter company to come round in the New Year to set someone up with a reverse osmosis sink water filter beneath the kitchen sink (www.pureh2o.co.uk). This would ensure pure water all year round and replace the need for bottles of mineral water (such a con!). Many people would love these things but never have the time to organise them.

This year, we have seen unprecedented national disasters in Asia, New Orleans and Pakistan. The public has responded magnanimously and compassionately.

Personally, sometimes I find it's easier to feel compassion for distant victims of disasters and the planet than the people in my immediate environment, but this year I am determined to embrace the true Christmas spirit and "drop the grudge". After all, politicians have been sanctimoniously exhorted to "drop the debt" all year, but the hardest thing of all is to "drop the grudge" that may be lurking in our hearts towards our neighbours, friends or family.

It's easy to grumble about our families, and the tediousness of spending time with them at Christmas, but this is what it's about: forgiving and forgetting, starting with a truce on just one day, like the Christmas Day armistice between German and British troops in December 1914. Creating peace in microcosm makes peace in macrocosm possible.

This year, let's reclaim the true Christmas message and ditch at least some of the mad merry-go-round. Over the next few pages we hope to capture the festive spirit, so that we can reinspire and reinvigorate our families, friendships and communities.

Happy Christmas to you all!

My Eco Christmas: Dr Caroline Lucas, Green Party MEP for South-East England:

Christmas can be terribly wasteful: acres of wrapping paper and forests of Spruce trees end up in landfill sites, food is flown thousands of miles and millions of unwanted gifts are produced. Making changes to the way we mark the holiday can make an enormous difference: by eating more local food, by recycling cards, wrapping paper and even Christmas trees, by buying "charity" gifts, we can ensure that our enjoyment doesn't come at the expense of the environment or the world's poor.

My Eco Christmas: Donna Air

For our Christmas turkey, I've been looking at a few organic farms near us in Kent. We'll also be making all the sauces and mince pies fresh. I'm trying to teach my daughter, Freya, who's two, about recycling. I'm still working for the John Aspinall Foundation, where we breed black rhino, barbary lions and gorillas and release them back into the wild. But, for me, being green is more about the little things we can do. It's about less packaging (why wrap a carrot in plastic?), recycling, and buying local.

Sponsor a gorilla on www.totallywild.net