I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas, Part 1

Last year’s accidental Christmas tree, adorned with drying (second-hand!) holiday sweaters

Ah, the holidays… the most wonderful and wasteful season of all. 

Let’s get straight to it: below are ideas to sustainify your Christmas. (Get ready for some rinky-dink pictures from Christmas past!) 

In this post:

  • Green presents
    • Make them
    • Regift
    • Consider Secret Santa
    • Charity gift cards
    • Chip in with others to buy one high-quality present
    • Hand-me-downs
    • Make a treasure box
    • Give thrifted items
    • Gift a potted plant
    • Gift something edible
    • Gift a digital subscription
    • Quality over quantity
    • the best sustainable gift
  • Green wrapping
    • Wrap them in…
    • Decorating your presents

Homemade embroidered pangolin

Green presents

Make them. Homemade gifts are foolproof. Even if you don’t view yourself as “artistic” and end up with a mound of melted Femo, your giftee will appreciate the effort. Make clay figurines, necklaces, friendship bracelets, photo albums, cardboard puzzles, herb-infused olive oil, fruit-infused spirits. You can experiment with a craft like crochet or embroidery, or paint some pottery at a paint-your-own shop.

Air-dry clay and acrylic earrings


Yup—give away your gifts. If you haven’t used them for a year or won’t use them in the future, repurpose them to a better candidate. They’ll never know where the gift came from (just don’t accidentally give it back to the person who gave it to you).

Consider Secret Santa 

Gift-giving can be a headache and a genuine strain. And how often are presents really needed, wanted, or used? In our family, we open gifts in an environment of such chaos (amid chatter, dessert, and sprinting children) that we barely know whose gift we’re opening. What’s the point of the environmental and personal stress?

The solution: Secret Santa!

Our family recently converted to Secret Santa, and it’s a blessing. It’s not only a fun game to play, but it makes the one gift you receive so much more special.

How to do it:

  1. Set a dollar limit for all Secret Santa presents
  2. Throw your names in a Santa hat.
  3. Take turns drawing a name.
  4. Buy a present for the person whose name you draw: label it with their name, but do not write who it’s from.
  5. Take turns opening presents and guessing who they’re from.

Virtual Secret Santa:

  1. Set a dollar limit for all Secret Santa presents
  2. Use an online tool like Giftster, Elfster, or DrawNames to randomly select your Secret Santas
  3. Send or drop your present on your giftee’s doorstep. Ordering directly from an online store is a simple way to send your gift, but if you send from your house, don’t put your name on the return address! Use the organizer’s return address instead.
  4. Gather over Zoom to take turns at guessing who your present is from.

Note: remove all tape and non-paper from your shipping boxes before recycling. Be sure to flatten the boxes: unflattened ones take more space in the recycling truck and require more trips.

Charity gift cards

This year, many of my presents are in the form of charity gift cards. There are a handful of companies that make this easy, giving you the option of mailing a physical card to your recipient, sending an e-card, or printing one out. Your giftee can select their favorite charity to donate to.

Intermediary companies do take a percentage of the card’s value, however. If you’re uncomfortable with this, you can organize a charity gift exchange with family members where you directly donate to a charity of their choice under their name.

A third option is to participate in a sponsorship program. Many animal welfare organizations allow you to sponsor an animal directly. Others, like World Wildlife Fund, have the option of “adopting” a species in exchange for a gift bag and plush toy of that species. Though this donation goes into WWF’s general fund and not specifically to helping that animal, some of the toys are pretty darn cute—and for kids, it’s a great educational tool.

Chip in with others to buy one high-quality present.

Rather than purchasing many little knick knacks that your recipient will never use, consider joining forces with other family members to get something they’ll really appreciate.


I’ve started giving my nephew and young cousins meaningful gifts from my childhood, and accompanying it with a short blurb about the gift’s significance: a hat I used to wear to the renaissance fair; the little masks I brought back from Guatemala; my favorite book; a jacket I thought was really cool in high school; a special baseball my dad and I would throw. Even for adult family members I have done this, and they usually end up being the most appreciated presents. 

Whether you’ve outgrown something, would rather not be reminded of it, or want to pass its glory along, bestowing sentimental items onto special people is an undervalued form of gift-giving.

Make a treasure box

For kids, this is a lot of fun. Your treasure box can consist of handmade, recycled, and less meaningful items. Last year I painted a shoebox to resemble a treasure chest, cut some spare gold fabric into coins, and added some miscellaneous treasures and fun snacks. To go the extra mile, make a treasure map and have your kid find the box in your garden.

Give thrifted items

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with thrifting for presents. Often items are good as new and totally unique. Second hand shops carry jewelry, kitchenware, games, holiday decorations (great for wrapping decoration), books, records, and loads of wonderful potential-gifts.

I’m usually transparent about where I got these gifts because I’m proud of my thrifting, but you can keep it a secret if you’d rather. Despite their source, the second-hand gifts I’ve given have been good as new and extremely well-received.

Gift a potted plant

Live plants make people happy. They’ll (hopefully) last for years and they respond to human care. They can be planted outside or kept as a house pet, named and decorated. They bring life and air to a home.

Gift something edible. 

Gift homemade preserves. Bake a Christmas loaf or make candied nuts. Personalize homemade cookies by writing the giftee’s name in frosting or carving out shapes that remind you of them.

Assemble a basket of themed foods: health foods, regional foods to acknowledge future travels, favorite foods, or nostalgic foods from childhood.

Gift a digital subscription

E-subscriptions are environmentally friendly ways to treat someone to entertainment and learning, tailored specifically to their interests. Sign them up for news channels like the New York Times or magazines like National Geographic. Rather than buying a book that might become a sedentary object, buy them an audiobook or Audible subscription. Since no one has a way to play DVDs or CDs anymore, gift them a movie or song. Gift cards for streaming services are also sure to be appreciated.

Quality over quantity

Focus on personalized and meaningful gifts over the amount of gifts you get each family member. One thoughtful present that fits them to a T will be more than enough.

The best sustainable gift

I’ve gone on gift sprees where I buy sustainable gifts for all family members—reusable utensils, metal straws, reusable Q-tips, cloth produce bags, etc. Though these are nice gifts with a clear message, they are not necessarily wanted or used. Your giftee might not use straws at all, or they may not be ready for reusable Q-tips—and in the trash those go.

Sustainable products are all the rage now. This is wonderful—but only when they function to minimize waste. If we buy loads of redundant sustainable products, they are no longer sustainable. Aim to buy what’s needed, rather than adding to someone’s collection of stuff.

Of course, the nature of gift-giving means that we don’t always know what is needed/wanted. Therefore, do your homework: interrogate another family member who has intimate knowledge of your giftee’s situation. Peer into their windows at night for signs of a compost; go through their trash to see how many bags they use.

Don’t do that. But… if you’ve determined that your giftee doesn’t have a compost and is interested in starting to compost, the gift of a compost service subscription is a pretty sure bet.

Compost services can be surprisingly cheap. You’ll buy a bin for your counter (or below the sink), and when it’s full, you’ll empty it into a larger bucket in your garden or on your deck. You can usually opt to have your compost picked up weekly, biweekly, or monthly. The provider will turn that compost into fertilizer.

Reused tissue paper and decoration

Green wrapping

Wrap them in…

  • Old newspaper   
  • Cloth
    • Buying virgin cloth isn’t better than using paper; it requires a large amount of water and energy to produce. But cutting up old clothing, or purchasing used curtains or sheets from Goodwill is a great way to wrap. 
  • Recycled and recyclable wrapping paper 
    • Not all wrapping paper can be recycled in your curbside bin. Those glitter or foil-embellished sheets can’t be processed, and some recycling experts even say plain wrapping paper should be left out. When you purchase wrapping paper, look for paper that says “recycled” or “recyclable.”
  • Another gift
    • If you’re gifting a scarf or bag, use them to hold another gift. 
  • Used wrapping paper
    • Save the wrapping paper from presents you receive, and reuse them. This means… no ripping!
  • A used paper bag
    • Save those bags throughout the year! You can either cut up the bags to use as wrapping paper, or use smaller paper bags to hold presents.  
    • Beware of the gift bags you purchase: glitter or plastic cannot be recycled, and beads or decorative handles must be removed before recycling.
Reused wrapping from presents I received the year before, and handmade name tags. After cutting off the rips and holes, some of the tissue paper wasn’t large enough. So I made tissue collages until the presents were covered!

Decorating your presents

Instead of buying bobbles, ribbons and bows (which cannot be recycled), use natural and compostable objects. Decorate with pine needles, rosemary, (plastic-free) candy canes, pine cones, dried citrus slices, cranberry bunches. Instead of ribbon, use compostable twine or yarn. Any ornamental thing about the house that you no longer need could potentially complete your wrapping—you can even cut up old clothes to use as ribbon.

To beautify your recycled wrapping paper or fabric, have fun with potato stamps! Or do some painting: my sister enlists her children to draw and paint on large sheets of plain paper, which results in beautiful and uniquely wrapped gifts. 

To feed two birds with one scone, make origami cards. They can act to both identify who your gift is to/write a message, and decorate your present.

Read I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas, Part 2


Practical Minimalism For Normal People

How to Have a Healthy Relationship With Spending

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

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