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Christmas presents and decorations - without shopping

Andy Hamilton

7th December, 2009

Christmas needn't be an orgy of consumerism: the more thought, and the less money, that goes into a gift, the more gratefully it is likely to be received. Here are some great ideas...

This year I won't be fighting my way through busy shops looking for that perfect gift, nor will I be keeping hold of my receipts just in case I have bought the wrong thing. No, I will be sitting at home, with my feet up, slurping a glass of sloe gin.

It's not that I am some kind of super-thoughtful man who buys all of my gifts a month in advance. Nor am I so tight as to not give anyone a present. I shall be giving away plenty of gifts this year and I hope they are all very personal and thoughtful gifts. Every gift will be ethical and every gift will have a very low environmental impact, as will my decorations, cards and wrapping paper.

So how will I do it? Well, it will be by being Selfsufficientish of Course!

Thoughtful gifts

Presents for loved ones really should have that 'wow' factor, and this need not cost much other than your time. In previous years when I have felt a little more flush I have simply sent out hampers that I ordered online. This really is a lazy approach and with most of the ingredients coming from different countries it is hardly a sustainable gift. So I am not doing that this year; besides, most people will agree that hand made gifts are much more thoughtful and they can be very sustainable too.

The presents I am giving out this year are all well thought out. I have grown a thyme plant from seed and I am giving this to my friend who is overworked by the BBC. A slight play on words: the gift of thyme!

My partner's family is Scottish, so I am making a selection of Scottish biscuits including shortbread - my favourite, Perkins! I have made sloe gin from sloes harvested in the local area: it might be too late to do that this year but how about next?

I can't tell you many more of this year's presents as I know the recipients will be reading this. But I can tell you about presents I have made in previous years to hopefully give you some more ideas.

These have included a small book of pressed herbs with a recipe and a herb next to each, and a paragraph of folklore. One of the most gratefully received gifts was a cheque book full of favours to be used at any time by my partner.

The cheques cover things such as washing up everything for a day, a cup of tea first thing in the morning and hanging the washing out. I will offer a word of advice: if you do make this gift, try not to go get too generous with the favours. My cheques were still being redeemed in March!

As for thoughtful gifts that I have personally received, these have included a jar of pickled garlic from my brother Dave. The home made label read, 'Andy's pickled brains' on account that I like garlic and the odd tipple.

I also received a jar of haw jelly and at that point I had never tried it (and wanted to). By far the most thoughtful and perhaps fairly simple gift was a bottle of Elderflower champagne with a label on it saying, 'Summer in a Bottle' and indeed it was!

Cards

Okay, I am in danger of sounding a little bah humbug but, I have never really seen the point in sending cards. Yes, they are nice to receive for the second that you look inside and then what? You also tend to get them from a friend with whom you have done nothing but exchange cards for the last 10 years so really, what's the point?

Perhaps picking up the phone and telling them you are going to talk instead of sending a card would be a much more personal and thoughtful contact. I think I would even prefer a text message than a card that does not even have my name written on the inside.

For those obligatory cards, why not calculate the amount you normally spend and donate that to a green charity or the charity that your Christmas cards normally support. Then send out an email to everyone, telling them that's what you have done. Of course some of these people will think you are just being sanctimonious, but let's hope most of them will think it's a good idea and follow suit. That way you might not have the extra problem of finding somewhere to recycle the cards after Christmas.

Wrapping paper

I tend to use newspaper or old magazines to wrap up presents. This need not look cheap as you can cut out appropriate pictures for each recipient. A celebrity gossip-obsessed friend can have their presents wrapped with photos of celebrities; start saving suduko's for that puzzle obsessed friend; and how about the literary section for all the presents you are sending my way (via the Ecologist's office)?!

You could even go slightly further and make your own paper - then wrapping presents takes on a whole new dimension! It's not as difficult as you first think and might be something to occupy young minds in the exciting run up to the big day.

Decorations

Decorations can be a tricky one to source as it seems there is little choice other than resorting to newspaper rings adorning the hallway or those awful silver foil decorations that have been freshly shipped from a factory on the other side of the world.

Over the last few years we have taken the third option and gone for 100 per cent natural and fully bio-degradable decorations. It is all because I was swotting up my folklore knowledge for my wild plant walks and I decided that I wanted to talk about holly. I discovered the obvious; that we used to deck our halls with bows of holly! In fact, in some parts of the England, holly was referred to simply as 'Christmas'.

The traditional time of year for pruning holly is during December so if you are lucky enough to have a tree then why not cut some back for the basis of your decorations. In fact I am using a branch of holly that I found in my local graveyard as my tree this year! Of course if you have children then you need to be aware that holly berries are poisonous.

Ivy is a great plant to source for decorations; I try to get great swathes of it so that I can hang it around my rooms. I then tie the holly and other bits of evergreens to it so it looks like a massive Christmas wreath hugging the room.

Ivy is very difficult to get rid of and can eat into brickwork or destroy trees. If a tree is totally covered in ivy, light may be unable to reach the trunk which can increase the amount of decay on already damaged trees. So you may well be doing the tree a favour by harvesting the ivy that is choking it.

Will I have time to do all this?

If you are wondering whether or not you will have time to do all of these things before Christmas Day, then I suggest you try to work them into your everyday life.

Instead of nipping out on your lunch break to get gifts, use this time to call a friend. Whilst the dinner is cooking make a batch of biscuits, and when walking the dog keep your eyes peeled for pruned holly. Make the wrapping paper during the time in which you would normally be doing something else with your kids, or even use it as an excuse to spend time with your kids.

I hope that, like mine, your Christmas will not only be low stress, but you will have made a lot of people a little happier!

Andy Hamilton is co-author of The Selfsufficient-ish Bible (£20, Hodder & Stoughton)

For ethical and sustainable suppliers of food and drink goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here

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