Tuesday, 17 December 2019

The glorious balancing act of living simply at Christmastime

Among friends online I've seen a resurgence of this excellent  piece from 2012 by George Monbiot.

I'm grateful for it coming round again — it made me revisit and reconsider some of my own choices and habits. 

Oscillations, vacillations, hypocrisy and half-baked principles are regular features of my life, as they are for most people. When I review it all from time to time, I can come up with some useful observations, and notice some strengthening patterns, evaluating them in deciding a wise way forward.

Tentatively, because your life is different from mine and you won't want the same modus operandi, I offer you some of my thoughts on living simply through the Christmas season.

1. Decorations. 
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, because it is indeed the season to be jolly. Trying to ignore it completely and refusing to join in doesn't cheer up anyone, including yourself.

In our house, we have two approaches, and I'm not ever so much for or against either. Hebe and Alice do buy baubles for the tree — and a tree to put them on; but they choose these with immense care. They have one small artificial tree, and buy one real tree. The decorations are unpacked with great care, and are often beautiful, handmade items. They (and the artificial tree) are stored with great care too — so each item lasts, and is appreciated for, decades. When Christmas is over, the real tree is taken down the garden and  allowed to die. Once it's dried out, Tony cuts it up into small bits for kindling, not for the next year but for the year after that. So, no waste there, and I'm happy with that approach.

My own approach is different. I like Christmas music, and I enjoy the Carols at Kings that comes on the BBC every year. I send a (very) few cards. I like fires, and I like candles. Candles, however,  generate waste and make the walls sooty. I way prefer beeswax as it purifies the air and is healthy, unlike paraffin wax, but it costs a lot. I use tea lights in jam jars, as that minimises wax and mess, but you do end up with all those little aluminium cups at the end. I experimented with an LED candle, and was shocked by how short was the battery life. Then I found online a 12-tealight charger base with candles. I can plug it in so the candles charge from the power supply (we have solar panels), and they last absolutely ages. 

I hesitated ages, asking myself if this is yet one more mass-produced plastic gimmick  But, honestly? I'm glad I got it, and use it all the time. So rechargeable candles, fires, Christmas music, carols and church, and greeting friends — that's my basic approach to Christmas. I like wandering round the streets and looking at the lights; but I wouldn't be heartbroken if they weren't there, so don't run away with the notion I'm importing trash-consumerism into other people's lives.

2. Homemade things
I'm going to put my head above the parapet now and say I have deep reservations about the unqualified enthusiasm for all things handmade.

Take, for instance, the burgeoning trend for yarn-bombing, and for knitting more twee acrylic angels than the hosts of heaven, to scatter throughout the world's public spaces as unsolicited gifts. My advice to you? Don't do it. It's nothing more than arduous littering.

In the same way, think carefully before you re-direct your consumerism in support of artisans on Etsy. Our children's grandmother (not my mother — she just did ten quid each and do what you want with it) used to go to the church bazaar and patronise all the stall-holders, to support the fundraising efforts of TearFund and TraidCraft and the Boys Brigade and whatnot. She'd trawl home all this hideous loot and palm it off on her unappreciative children and grandchildren at Christmas. It's not a good move to buy what people want to sell you instead of what you actually want, just to support a women's co-operative in Bangalore.

This year I briefly considered buying some traditional wooden Nordic bowls at eye-watering prices from a craftsperson living in rural Sweden who has health issues. I still experience regret at withdrawing from making the purchase. It's just that I haven't got enough money and nobody wants them.

I'm not saying you should abandon the idea of home-made presents. I darn and darn and darn again the beautiful blue socks Alice knitted me a few years ago. I wear all winter the hat she knitted me a year or two back. I look forward with slavering jaws to the Christmas cake Tony's daughter Carrie makes us every year. 

We've sometimes made each other little books of poems and quotations, and when I'm asked to take responsibility for the Christingle at the chapel along the road from us, I make them a carol booklet with lovely pictures so the children have it to take home at the end (as well as the Christingle candle they made).

Home made lemon curd or fudge or cookies can go down a storm. What's important is to start the imaginative journey with what will please the recipient, and think how to source it; not start with who wants to make and sell things, then try and figure out who you can dump them on.

Of course, if you have the money to spend, the work of an artist or craftsman is true heirloom material. Like these Keith Brymer Jones cups to which I treated myself this autumn (but the plates are all from charity shops):

3. Packaging
This is surely a big issue. We watched an episode of the BBC programme, The Christmas Factory the other night. It took us through the journey of making a Marks and Spencer Christmas cake. The ingredients were of very good quality — actual food, as you might say — but we were shocked by the plastic waste generated in the act of mass-production. The factory workers had to wear polyester hair nets. The icing sugar came in large bags which were emptied then thrown out. Then the icing sugar had to be bagged up again in its new form as fondant icing, for transport to a different area of the factory. Things were packaged and re-packed, wrapped in cling film, bagged up, numerous time before the final packaging of the final product. It had never occurred to me before that the packaging in which you buy store-bought food is just the tip of the iceberg. They must have used enough clingfilm to throw twice round the moon wrapping up the different ingredients as the cakes travelled through the production process. And that's before getting on to the lorries and all the food miles to get them in to the stores. So, when it comes to food, I think home-made is definitely the way to go. Unless you personally wear polyester hairnets every time you set foot in the kitchen, and swathe each stage in cling film. If you do that, go ahead and get your cake in Marks, it doesn't matter.

4. Second hand
I confess to ambivalence on this one. I'm a huge fan of buying second-hand from private sellers on eBay. It's making life work for all kinds of people with hidden/not-hidden disabilities, people struggling with poverty for all kinds of reasons. It re-uses items already produced, and reduces waste immensely. It makes the money go further, so either you need less (and so are less tied in to the System) or if you like your job and have loads of money, well, it leaves you more spare to give away. There are plenty of good causes.

This year I wanted new warm PJs. I got two sets. One cost me £3, the other cost me £8, both were brushed cotton (flannelette, winceyette, you know the stuff), second-hand on eBay. Apart from anything else, this meant the first owner had endured the fabric shrinkage; the size they came to me is the size they will stay, which is helpful.

So when it comes to clothes shopping, second-hand from a private seller on eBay is my unhesitating first choice. I do sometimes buy new, but only when I can't find what I'm looking for second-hand.

But gifts . . . hmmm. I wanted to give my mother a lovely soft wrap in cashmere and silk for Christmas, but I didn't want to pay what they cost. So in her case, as her eyesight is fading and the stakes are lower, I bought second-hand on eBay. 

For my grandson, I will buy transformer toys on eBay, because he wants specific models and some have gone out of production.

I will occasionally buy second-hand books on eBay or Amazon. And when it comes to clothing and other gifty things, I will look for unwanted gifts sold on, or ends of lines, factory outlet stock etc. And I wait for the sales. 

It all keeps costs down, allowing me to live as I wish and still source what I need. It minimises waste. eBay is also good for small sellers of all kinds — eg UK makers of socks from their alpaca herds, or home knitters. 

5. But wait — should we be buying gifts at all?
A couple of years ago, I gave up the whole Christmas gift scenario. And I personally don't mind if people give me presents or not. 

I found it a huge relief and financially very helpful to stop the Christmas gifts. I still got something for my very old mother and for my grandchildren, but left it at that.

But this year, things are different. Two family members who were part of our household last year now live elsewhere — but they live alone. It can be dispiriting just doing Christmas all by yourself. It's nice to get a box from your family at Christmas. Then, one of my daughters is a wife and mother — husbands and kids aren't always great and knowing just what mama wants, are they? So we started up presents again. I'm pleased we have, and at the same time I wish we hadn't. And overall I don't think it matters much either way. The Lord provides, and the important component is the love.

6. And the food
We've gone back to Abel and Cole. They bring the boxes of groceries and leave them in our porch, which is massively helpful, reducing car dependancy (okay, I know they have a van, but then all the customers use it). They allocate you a delivery day and time, to reduce food miles.

The food is completely unpackaged where possible, or comes in recycled paper. The mushroom boxes look like some kind of paper maché. Where packaging is used, it's compostable. Our delivery driver, Steve, picks up last week's boxes, and the string. He also takes away the insulation, which is sheep wool wadding encased in recycled and recyclable covers. All their products are organic, high welfare, mostly British.

We do also shop at Trinity Wholefoods (a local co-op, also has a re-fill shop), Marks and Spencer (high welfare, British, good ethics), Sainsburys (lots of organic groceries, good ethics, local produce) and Asda (cheap, and gradually experimenting with organic food).

However dedicated you may be to simple living, I expect you feel you've read enough now.


Sandra Ann said...

Thanks for sharing Pen, a delightful read ❤️

Pen Wilcock said...

Thank you! Waving! It all takes some thinking about, doesn't it? Part of the reason for maintaining a discipline of living simply is because living simply itself takes a lot of thought, so you need to live simply just to make the space to think about living simply!

Suzan said...

I find your comments heartening. I used to give handmade gifts but some family members said they did not want handmade. IT was insulting because I used good quality yarn and made sure the product was well made. We do give food gifts but I am trying to cut back as I made eight fruit cakes already and I am over it and mum wants more. Once again I used mixed dried fruits, dried cherries, dried apricots, dates, prunes, crystallised stem ginger, spices, and nuts all soaked in Cointreau. It is luxury cake but eight is enough.

I have bought multiple gifts for my one grandchild. They are not ex[ensive. I have made her an elf, bought her an age appropriate book, a wooden hamburger for her play kitchen and a t-shirt. Today she visited with us and she loved playing with our nativity. Once again made form a panel and much played with over the years. This is about the only decoration that is up. I am going slow. Most of my decorations are glass and Mia is much too young just yet.

Pretty much everyone else is getting cash as I know have two engaged daughters who plan to marry next year. They can choose what they want. For the older people I have bought a donation to Doctors' without Borders.

I would be very careful about giving second hand goods unless they were of excellent quality and what the person wants.

God bless you and may your have a wonderful Christmas filled with love, peace and happiness.

Pen Wilcock said...

God bless you too, Suzan, and may 2020 bring you peace and wellbeing.

Jenna said...

Like you, Pen, I sought more simple and truthful ways to celebrate Christmas until I struck on the ultimate solution: Just don't.

There's no commandment in the entirety of scripture about celebrating it. The dating of the Christ-mass is altogether suspect when you take into account especially the note (Luke 1:5) of Zachariah serving the temple 8th course which occurs in early June. Assuming the mute man went home to his wife and immediately consummated the news he'd received, Elizabeth's 6th month falls in December coincident with Mary's conception so we're looking at late September/early October (much more in keeping with Palestinian shepherds being outside at night). This timing coincides with the Father's commanded Feast of Tabernacles--funnily enough for the Son to tabernacle among us (John 1:14).

My tribe celebrates then the breaking forth of Light into the world without a single card or wrapped item or (heaven forbid) any stocking in sight and it's absolutely glorious and singly-focused. Freed from all the expectations and bills and all of that argle-bargle, it's quite the joy-filled celebration. The commandment is to celebrate with waving branches of "goodly trees" so that's about the only similarity--other than lots of food and song and happiness. I put this out there to encourage anyone who needs something different that something different is absolutely there to do.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thank you, Jenna! Yes, what you describe is how we've approached it the last few years, but for a variety of reasons (as described) something different seemed right this year.

The feast of Christmas is, as you point out, should not be mistaken for "the birthday of Christ". It is the feast of the Incarnation, settled upon the time of year when the nights are long, the days dark and cold, and earth is in the grip of winter. At Yul, ("the Turn") the light that brings the world to life again comes anew. This is why the infancy of Christ the Light of the World is celebrated then. It's not a birthday celebration, it's about infant Light found among us bringing hope to a dark earth.