Get ideas for right-sizing Christmas ― and enjoying the real spirit of giving

Trying to have an environmentally friendly holiday is a bit like serving Tofurky in Texas. Your enthusiasm for soy may spur your guests to scramble for steak, and merely expressing a desire to put limits on gift giving may make your family think you’re a Scrooge.

But after learning, among other disturbing statistics, that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day generate 3 billion extra tons of garbage annually, I resolved not to sit back in silence and watch the packing peanuts pile up. This year, I’m hoping to pull off a simpler and more sustainable holiday.

But where to start? I took a cue from market researchers and sought out what they refer to as an “extreme user.” And that’s how I discovered John Perry and The Compact.

Though it may sound like the title of a John Grisham novel, the Compact started as a group of 10 friends in San Francisco who made a vow not to buy anything new, except for food and health- and safety-related things like medicine, toothpaste, and toilet paper. (The movement has inspired similar groups throughout the country and even as far away as Japan and New Zealand.)

The Compact began over dinner one night just before Christmas in 2005, when Perry and friends began talking about recycling and how it really didn’t address the root cause of climate change―consumption.

The friends then posed a challenge to one another. “We decided, ‘Let’s not just recycle. Let’s reduce and reuse,’ ” Perry tells me. “We vowed to go a year without buying anything new.”

Three years later, that initial challenge has turned into a way of life. Perry and his fellow Compacters say it has transformed them for the better, allowing them not just to save money but also to focus on their families. Still, I was curious about how Perry navigates the holiday season, when the shopping frenzy reaches its peak.

“Our kids know not to expect a lot of stuff,” Perry explains. During the holidays, he and his partner, Rob Picciotto, and their two young children don’t shop. They either make stuff for friends and family (“We bake a lot of bread,” says Perry), or contribute donations through organizations like Heifer International and Seva Foundation. The couple does buy secondhand toys for the kids, and plans special outings (like ice cream on a school night, or an afternoon hike) in lieu of gifts.

Decorating is a snap because, as Perry says, “Nothing is as accessible as secondhand holiday stuff, especially in the off-season. We got a 12-foot artificial tree off the ‘free’ section on Craigslist. A guy gave it away in July, complete with boxes of brand-new ornaments. Next,” he says jokingly, “I’m looking for a yard-size menorah.”

Next: A sense of relief

Holidays make you think about community, explains Perry. “After you get past the ‘I can’t shop’ phase, you move into the ‘I don’t have to shop’ phase. So during the holidays, I actually feel a sense of relief. I don’t come out of the holidays with credit-card debt, nor do I see people at their worst because they’re scrambling for the last ‘It’ toy on the shelf. You can make the holiday what you want it to be.”

Environmentalist Sheherazade Goldsmith shares many of the concerns of Perry and his fellow Compacters, though she hasn’t sworn off consumption altogether. In her new book, A Greener Christmas, Goldsmith advocates a simpler way to celebrate. “I love Christmas,” she writes, “or at least I love the ritual of it. [But] somehow this day that should be full of creativity, goodwill, and thoughtfulness has lost its way and has ended up as a symbol of our throwaway society.”

Goldsmith’s strategy for a sustainable holiday is very much of the DIY variety. Her book features more than 300 pages of projects and recipes for everything from a dried-leaf wreath to cookie placecards.

Implicit on every page is the value of time: by making a centerpiece, gift tag, or pot of soup, you’re using that time in a far more meaningful way than you would scrambling for parking or Power Rangers.

It’s safe to say that the leaf wreath I plan to make with my 3-year-old won’t be as lovely as the one in Goldsmith’s book. And it’s not likely that the Compact will become mainstream anytime soon―it’s probably unreasonable to expect that most of us will be able to refrain from buying at least one shiny new gift for our kids, or expect not to succumb to the siren call of a new party dress. And we shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

But it seems easy enough to remember to recycle our trees; to use more efficient LED Christmas lights; to shop for decorations at a thrift store or make them with our kids; to ask adult relatives to each pick the name of another adult and give a gift to that family member only; or to implement something like the Hundred Dollar Holiday, a program initiated by environmentalist Bill McKibben and members of his Methodist church, which asks friends and family to limit holiday spending to $100.

As McKibben explains in his book Deep Economy: “When we started it, we were thinking as pious environmentalists. But the reason the campaign worked so well was because so many people were desperate for permission to celebrate Christmas in a new way that better fit what we actually need out of the holidays.”

To me, that feels very sustainable indeed.

INFO: Check out TheCompact to learn more. Visit and for details on these charitable organizations.

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