How to Have a Green Christmas

Eco-friendly strategies for making the holidays healthier for you -- and the planet.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 12, 2007
5 min read

Instead of tidings of comfort and joy, Christmas often brings mostly stress and excess -- too much food, too much drink, too much spending, and too much waste.

Environmentalists advocate an "eco-friendly" holiday season that will result in a "green Christmas" that will put less strain on Mother Earth, but some of the same choices they suggest can produce a more people-friendly holiday as well, leading to better health for all. While a truly organic Christmas in this day and age may be hard to imagine, it may be possible to take some steps in that direction.

(What do you do for a more environmentally-friendly holiday? Share your stories and ideas on WebMD's Health Café board.)

Consider gift giving, a major feature of the modern-day Christmas celebration. Manufacturing gifts requires consuming resources in the form of raw materials and energy. Shopping for them uses gasoline, and once given, the gifts generate mountains of wrapping paper, ribbons, and cards. Then there are all those trips back to the store to exchange unwanted items, which require more gasoline. All this generates plenty of emotional and financial stress for humans, as well.

The solution?

"I counsel people that there are two types of gifts -- material gifts and experiential gifts," Robert Lilienfeld, author of Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are, tells WebMD. "The kinds of gifts that have the most positive emotional value -- the healthiest gifts -- are those that provide us with experiences. You can help people travel, you can give them tickets to concerts, museums, sporting events. For teenagers, an iTunes card is always welcome. From a use-less-stuff standpoint, this is very positive because you're giving an experience, not a thing, and those kinds of experiences stay with us longer anyway."

This type of gift giving also would help reduce the amount of holiday wrapping paper and packaging destined for our landfills. But even traditional gifts can be given in a way that minimizes waste.

"You probably have a lot of things you can use to wrap gifts that are recyclable, such as old subway maps, magazines, and so on," says Lilienfeld, who also publishes the ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report. "If you give a CD, the odds are good that a newspaper or magazine will have an ad for that group. That way the wrapping is related to the gift you're giving, and it's something you're going to recycle anyway."

Christmas trees pose a dilemma because fresh trees as well as artificial trees have their advantages and drawbacks.

An artificial tree will last for years, thereby avoiding annual trips to buy a fresh tree. Fresh trees may also carry mold and spores that can aggravate allergies. Connecticut researchers recently found that the mold count from a live Christmas tree rose to more than six times the original level after two weeks indoors. According to the authors, the study "demonstrates that mold-sensitive patients may experience allergic symptoms due to an increasing mold spore exposure from having a live Christmas tree in the home."

No live tree is hypoallergenic, and the Christmas decorations you put on them, especially heirlooms that have been used for many years, may be covered with dust, which also can irritate people with allergies.

On the other hand, Lilienfeld says, artificial trees are made with petroleum -- a nonrenewable resource -- and the manufacturing process often involves dioxins, a highly toxic, cancer-causing chemical that accumulates in the fatty tissues of humans and other animals.

They also lack the evergreen fragrance that signifies Christmas for many people. Buying a fresh tree may eliminate the need for scented candles, incense, and other overpowering fragrances that can bother people with allergies -- as well as those without. And because most Christmas trees are grown on farms, harvesting them does not disturb forests.

As for disposing of the trees, the National Christmas Tree Association and Earth 911 operate a web site that directs you to the nearest of nearly 4,000 locations nationwide that will accept your tree.

The choice between a fresh or a frozen turkey poses a similar dilemma. Fresh turkeys have no added hormones, but neither do frozen turkeys because the federal government prohibits administering growth hormones to poultry. Free-range turkeys may be raised without antibiotics, but the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service requires that all turkeys given antibiotics be kept alive long enough for the drugs to pass completely out of the bird's system.

If you want to make your meal more organic, you might be better off choosing lots of organic vegetables.

When it comes to holiday meals, what's most important for your health is moderation. If you don't eat too much turkey -- or anything else, for that matter -- you'll probably do more for your health than any free-range or organic bird ever could.

"Most people gain about a pound or more this time of year because of all the holiday food and cheer," says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, WebMD's director of nutrition. "If you don't want to gain another notch on your belt, try shaving a few calories wherever you can without denying yourself the joy of holiday food and festivities. Moderation is the key. Be picky at the buffet table, forget about second helpings, and when it comes to those decadent desserts, eat only a sliver or share with a friend. Do everything you can to stay active and keep up your exercise to thwart those extra pounds."

Christmas lights can consume an alarming amount of electricity, as homeowners who lavishly decorate their house and yard discover when inspecting their electric bill for the holiday season. You can lighten your "carbon footprint" -- and the burden on your pocketbook -- by using light-emitting diodes, or LED lights, instead of conventional holiday lights. LEDs use far less electricity -- sometimes up to 90% less -- and remain cool to the touch.

The Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center this season is ablaze with 30,000 LED lights, which will cut electric consumption from 3,510 to 1,297 kilowatt hours -- an amount of electricity equal to what a typical 2,000-square-foot house would use in a month, the Associated Press reports.

Some LED lights for outdoor use also come with solar panels, which reduce the cost of electricity to zero.

The bottom line, for minimizing stress on the environment and on yourself during the holiday season, is simple -- use less stuff, as Lilienfeld's book advises. Buy fewer gifts, and get by with fewer decorations and smaller meals. That will contribute more than anything to the health of the planet, the health of your body, and the health of your budget.