Christmas, more than any other holiday in the year, is about tradition.
We have inherited a patchwork quilt of customs, stitched together over millennia of annual winter celebrations, from the birth of Christ, to honouring the god of Saturn or burning a Yule log. They have wound through history overlapping and borrowing from each other, to leave us with a complex amalgamation of practices, the lineages of which can instigate as many arguments as a game of Boxing Day Trivial Pursuit.
Our modern Christmas traditions, however, have become increasingly focussed on excess. And like so many aspects of modern living, most of us are aware that this has a hugely detrimental impact on the planet. The statistics are frightening: 227,000 miles of wrapping paper, over nine million turkeys, 114,000 tonnes of plastic and around six million trees, all acting as part of the stage setting for this decadent celebration.
So, how can we reduce the waste and excess while retaining the spirit of Christmas – whose light, warmth and festive cheer are a beacon to guide us through the darkest time of the year?
Transforming our traditions
For those of us whose Christmas is not rooted in religion, there’s a temptation to reject it all in the style of a Dickensian Scrooge. Cancel the feasting, forget the presents, pull down the blinds and stoically refuse to engage when others try to lure us into their indulgent recreation. But let’s not forget the moral of that story – that through generosity, empathy and compassion, we have the power to transform not just our own lives, but the society in which we live.
It is this collective power that has the ability to be so transformative at Christmas. And in an effort to live more lightly on the planet, perhaps instead of rejecting traditions, these are the very things we need to hark back to. After all, the truth is that many of the customs we preserve – the turkey, the tree, even the presents – are all conventions established within the past three hundred years.
Perhaps in a bid for a more sustainable festive season, we should be looking even further back to those most ancient rituals, in order to discover what is meaningful and sacred, and then pass forward a well-considered Christmas legacy. Traditions which rather than adding to the mountains of waste, can help us to savour and preserve the things that really matter.
From fowl to field
Once a prized rarity imported from America in the 16th century, turkey has become the headline ingredient for Christmas dinner.
But at what cost? In 2017, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism stated that 86% of the total number of permit-holding farms in the UK were made up of intensive poultry farms. The number of industrial-scale pig and poultry farms continues to rise with a 7% increase in the UK between 2017 and 2020. Intensive farming systems offer low standards of animal welfare, have a huge environmental impact and produce meat that will often contain high levels of antibiotics.
So whether it’s pigs in blankets or a plump bird on your shopping list, taking the time to consider animal welfare as well as the integrity of the farming method is important. Eating smaller amounts of high quality, organic, free range or wild meat is a good place to start in supporting the health of the planet as well as our personal health.
For a more traditional Christmas roast, we might consider meats that would have been available long before turkeys arrived in Europe. Going back a few centuries, grass-fed meat became plentiful in December as animals were slaughtered before the grass ran out. Game birds, wild boar and deer would also have been highly prized among those with the skills and equipment to hunt. For many, meat would have been savoured as a rarity and the mark of a truly special occasion.
Swapping the turkey with grass-fed local beef, or sourcing some highly sustainable venison could offer a delicious alternative for a festive lunch. Perhaps it’s time to think outside the box and leave the poor turkey behind.
Homage to agriculture
Through the industrial revolution and ever-increasing food chains, our connection to the land, to farming, to understanding where our food is from, has become less and less tangible. In pagan times Saturnalia was a hedonistic festival which spanned the winter solstice and honoured the god of agriculture and time. It was considered an important part of the farming calendar, with fires lit in the hope of drawing the light back to nourish crops in the year to come.
While hedonism is something we probably have enough of in modern Western culture, honouring the soil – on which 95% of our food is reliant – and the agricultural practices that keep it healthy, is a pursuit well worth engaging in. If the thin layer of fertile soil covering the earth disappears, so does our ability to feed ourselves.
In a 2015 report on soil health, the Sustainable Food Trust found that 52% of farmland soils worldwide had already been degraded. It also highlighted the startling quantity of soil lost each year to wind and water erosion – around 24 billion tonnes, a number so large it’s almost impossible to comprehend.
Celebrating those who farm regeneratively will help maintain and improve the health of the land they work. If we were to pay our respects to whatever god of agriculture we choose to believe in, what would this look like? Could taking the time to focus on the quality of every morsel we consume steer us away from Christmas as a celebration of quantity, excess and waste?
The gift of an orange at the bottom of a stocking is one tradition that we can trace right back to one of the origin stories of Santa Claus. Said to represent the bags of gold Saint Nicholas threw through the window, it was also prized as a rarity and not the everyday staple it’s now become.
If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s been to appreciate what we have and be grateful for all that we so easily take for granted.
It wasn’t so long ago that imports were an exotic luxury. Here, in Bristol, you can now buy almost any food product you can imagine, from any corner of the globe, at any given time of day. It’s an incredible privilege which has revolutionised the way we cook and eat. But as with anything that’s easily available, we are not treasuring it as we once did.
I’m in no way suggesting that we should stop eating delicious Spanish oranges or delighting in chocolate made from African cocoa beans, only that perhaps Christmas is the perfect occasion on which to treasure each of these gifts and appreciate the entire journey it’s made to be in our hands.
And the list goes on
It seems that this list could go on and on – much like my five-year-old daughter’s hopeful list to Father Christmas, it’s an inexhaustible subject.
There’s the tree, the presents, the crackers and the inevitable panic buying which so often disarms us at the last minute. We end up with three different booze-laden creams, a cheese stuffed with some strange fruit, an extra pack of nuts which nobody actually eats and three boxes of clementines, destined to rot at the bottom of the fruit bowl.
This is a battle we need to fight. It’s very real. But let’s stop and think. Can you remember a single festive time when you’ve felt like there’s not enough food? Or drink? Let’s stick to the plan and appreciate what we have with as much respect as we can muster.
Looking back through the chronicles of winter celebrations and using traditions that resonate to form our own rituals at this time of year, gives us the power to make small changes.
Passing these on to family and friends, weaving in all the beauty and magic of stories from our cultural ancestors could be the first step towards reframing Christmas from the festival of waste it seems to have become, into a time that reconnects us to the food we eat.
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