Have Yourself a Merry ‘No Impact’ Christmas

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This article first appeared on We Hate To Waste. Re-posted with permission.

If Christmas is only about presents, then my family and I will never have a ‘real’ Christmas. I mean we’ll have the caroling and the uncle playing the piano and the cousins running around with my daughter and the delicious food. In other words, we’ll have an amazingly good time.

What we won’t have, though, is the average American’s $800 hole in our bank accounts, gouged out by Christmas-present spending. Nor will we have the credit card debt still unpaid by June. Nor the forcing of smiles for gifts we don’t really want. Nor the buying of extra luggage to bring home all of those unwanted gifts. Nor the stressful rush of last-minute crowds at the mall.

Without any presents, we won’t have the sensation that I, at least, normally associate with Christmas — the stress. And without stress or presents, it’s not really Christmas, right?

My Life as No Impact Man

No Impact Man DVD

Back in 2006, my then little family and I — one wife, one toddler, one dog — embarked on a lifestyle experiment in which we tried to live with the lowest possible environmental impact. The experiment included not making trash, not using any form of carbon-producing transportation, and not buying anything new.

This may sound like a lot of meaningless self-deprivation, but the question we wanted to answer was this: Does consuming fewer resources actually feel like deprivation, or is it possible that consuming less opens up another way of life that provides more enduring satisfaction?

Could we find a win-win way of life that might be happier both for us and for the planet? Sometimes the answer was no. It would be better for the planet if we all decided not to buy big hunks of metal otherwise known as washing machines, but believe me washing my family’s clothes by hand did not make me happier.

On the other hand, eating local and riding bikes instead of driving cars allowed us to lose the spare tires around our guts, cure ourselves of longstanding skin problems and insomnia and become generally healthier. And not using electricity to power entertainment devices drew us closer together as a family and made us spend more quality time with friends.

Is it Possible to Celebrate a No Impact Christmas?

So as the holidays approach us, the more pressing question is, will the season’s huge consumption of resources add to the Christmas experience or detract from it? Since one-sixth of all American retail sales (and as a consequence, a hefty proportion of our national planetary resource use) occur during the holiday season, it’s a question worth asking.

Interestingly enough, even though oodles of presents at Christmas is the dominant American paradigm, it turns out that people who spend less and have less spent on them and emphasized time spent with families at Christmas actually enjoy the season more (see Journal of Happiness Studies by Tim Kasser and Kennon M. Sheldon).

Of course, we all know in our hearts that treasuring meaningful experiences and spending time in valued relationships make us happier than getting more stuff. But try telling that to the grandparents at Christmas time! Try living out these lofty principles when the rest of your family and friends are swapping presents at the same rate as ever. You may find “bah humbugs” shouted in your direction more than once. That’s problematic, particularly if you’re hoping to inspire more sustainable lifestyle choices in other people.

Buy Experiences as Holiday Gifts Instead


The trick to a happy, sustainable, no impact Christmas is not to ignore the expectations of the people we celebrate with. We never want our loved ones to feel badly. Those who expect presents should get them. Gifts, after all, are associated with the exchange of love.

For us, the answer is to buy presents that don’t require the exploitation of large amounts of planetary resources. In the past, my mother was very happy with the two massages she got. My father and his wife enjoyed the gift certificate to the fine dining, local-food restaurant in their neighborhood. Friends appreciated the theater tickets we bought them. And unlike those unwanted trinkets one sometimes buys for the ‘person who has everything,’ our sustainable gifts, we felt, actually improved the recipients’ lives.

Still, my wife, Michelle, worried at first that it would be hard for our daughter if all of her cousins had presents to open. Try saying, “The research says you’ll be happier with less,” to a child. So Isabella’s Aunt Maureen gave Isabella wrapped toys that her children had outgrown. Isabella, meanwhile, didn’t care whether the presents she was opening were for her or not. She didn’t even want what was inside. She just wanted to open them and participate. And when her Uncle Joe started playing the piano and singing, she got bored with the present opening and went to sit with him on the piano bench.Wrap up Hand-Me-Downs for a No Impact Christmas for Kids.

Much to our surprise, when the Christmas vacation was over, she didn’t even want to take her cousins’ old toys home. She’d already had her presents. What was important to her was what turned out to be important to us: the singing, the charades, and the laughter, the time spent with family and, of course, the celebration. This is the tradition that we’ve continued ever since then and I hope to inspire a few of you out there to try it, too. Happy Holidays to everyone, but without all of the stuff!


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