Wishing you a happier, more sustainable Christmas

Anne Liddon, Science Communications Manager and Carmen Hubbard, Lecturer, Centre for Rural Economy, School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, have written a thought-provoking post on how to make Christmas more sustainable.

It’s Christmas Eve and already shop assistants are scraping seasonal gift advertisements off their windows as they prepare to sell us even more stuff in the New Year sales.  Coloured lights have festooned the streets for weeks and we are all sick of eating turkey.  Christmas is the biggest celebration of the year for most people in the UK, so we risk sounding like killjoys if we try to bring sustainability into this festive picture.  But is the emphasis on continuous consumption for up to three months before Christmas actually reducing our enjoyment?

In mediaeval times work stopped on Christmas Eve and the population was on holiday for the traditional “twelve days”.  Daylight was short, there was no electricity and few agricultural tasks to be done, so staying indoors and making the most of the enforced idleness made sense.  But now Christmas begins earlier and earlier, with gift catalogues posted out in August and shop window displays unveiled from September onwards.  Festive lights are switched on up to six weeks before Christmas, usually by a well-known celebrity.  This year London’s Oxford Street will be ablaze from 12 November to 4 January with a new £1.5 million display.  That’s the cost of the lights themselves, not counting the energy that they will consume.  Newcastle’s display is more modest but is also illuminated from mid-November onwards.

Christmas lights Newcastle

Christmas lights Newcastle

Of course the lights bring pleasure to many residents and visitors.  Businesses in London insist that they bring in extra visitors to the capital during the winter season, but do those of us who live here in Newcastle really notice our own Christmas lights after the initial “wow” factor?  If they were alight for just a few days over the holiday itself might we enjoy them even more?

It is certainly true that many people complain about the early start to the festive season.  A poll carried out by IPSOS ASI in 2012 found that 76% of respondents thought that “Christmas advertising starts too early”  – and few would deny that it is commerce that drive this early start, with mince pies on sale from September and parties beginning weeks before the day itself.  Is our enthusiasm “unsustainable”, and do we risk it running out well before 25th December?  Economists talk about a “law of diminishing marginal utility” to describe the way that the perceived satisfaction derived from a good reduces with each additional unit.  Could this also apply to the experience of Christmas?

Excess – whether of gifts, food or alcohol – is now expected.  How many unwanted presents are immediately passed on to charity shops or even thrown in the bin along with the paper and plastic debris of crackers, wrapping paper and leftover food?  Figures published in 2012 concluded that we waste the equivalent of two million turkeys, five million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies over the festive season, because households routinely overbuy at this time of year.  We seem to fear that the shops will never reopen, even though most are back to business as usual by Boxing Day.  Then there are the extra calories that we actually consume – and attempt to compensate for in January with resolutions about dieting and gym membership.  More serious still are the manifold consequences to individuals and to society following festive alcohol binges.

Christmas decorations Eldon Square, Newcastle

Christmas decorations Eldon Square, Newcastle

Eating, drinking and partying are fun, particularly in the depths of a dark winter, as our ancestors have always known.  But in the modern world these activities might cause us fewer problems if the celebrations didn’t last so long.  A big Christmas dinner is not, on its own, going to make anyone fat.  A couple of glasses of wine on Christmas Day will not have long-term health implications for most adults and a small, carefully chosen gift will give more pleasure than an expensive but unwanted one.

So we don’t want to cancel Christmas, rather we want to increase everyone’s enjoyment and, in doing so, we argue that we could make it more sustainable.  If the only Christmas dinner you ate was on Christmas Day itself, wouldn’t you savour the roast turkey and mince pies that much more?  And if the illumination of the festive lights actually launched your celebration on Christmas Eve, wouldn’t that be even more exciting, as well as saving energy?

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