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FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE the message of the nativity, Christmas can never be cancelled, nor indeed saved, by a politician. But perhaps our celebration of it really does need to change.

For many people, it has become a stressful season of pressure to spend money they haven’t got, to fit in with perceived social norms. For others, it’s a hedonistic festival of frenetic consumption. As we face growing numbers of people in hardship, and a climate and ecological crisis, some of the ways we mark Christmas seem increasingly inappropriate.

And yet…the impulses of love, generosity, togetherness and hospitality associated with Christmas are the best of us, and at this cold, dark time of year many of us do appreciate a shaft of light in the gloom, an opportunity to express warm feelings through the giving of a thoughtful gift, no matter how small or inexpensive. Can we do this in a way which is more positive and constructive, less damaging? Here are a few tentative suggestions.

Most obviously, we can make a donation to a charity on a loved one’s behalf, or buy an ‘alternative’ gift. We’re all familiar with the idea of buying a goat from a development charity, but things have moved on and there are now various twists on this idea – for instance, UNICEF now does Paddington’s Parcels, with gifts for a child starting at £12.

Here in the UK, the SVP’s alternative gifts could help a family buy a cooker or a bed, or provide companionship to a lonely person. For £10, the Book Trust could send a book parcel to a child in care spending their first Christmas away from their family. The Jesuit Refugee Service has a selection of gifts; £5 for a phone call to a refugee in custody, or £15 for a pack of essential toiletries. Very many charities now do gifts like this, so there is a huge choice and it should be easy to find something affordable and appropriate.

For people who love the natural world, a gift membership of their local Wildlife Trust or the RSPB might be appreciated, and these organisations also have online shops with their own eco-friendly gifts on offer.

If the person you’re buying for is involved in a local sports club or other community activity, perhaps a donation could be made there. Our local lower league football club, for instance, is looking for ‘pitch heroes’ to sponsor a new pitch, one square foot at a time, and many football clubs have a fund for their work in the community.

For people fortunate enough to have a garden, why not give a garden centre voucher, or buy them some seeds which they can plant to sustain insects and butterflies, from somewhere like Higgledy Garden. Nesting boxes, bird feeders and bug houses are also an option to give our wildlife a helping hand.

And thinking of those bees – candles made from pure beeswax are a naturally scented renewable alternative to  mass produced ones which may contain synthetic additives.  And of course, a jar of honey from those bees could be very much appreciated.

For those without a garden, there is some evidence that house plants can be good for our mental health, so they might be worth considering. Or if the recipient would prefer to produce something edible, herbs in pots or a kit for growing mushrooms might be well received.

Moving on to food, small local and environmentally friendly producers are worth seeking out. Cheese is often a popular gift, and a good example is the Courtyard Dairy, but you may be able to find similar businesses closer to home. Chocolate also goes down well, and organic fairtrade chocolate is even better. There is a great variety available from Divine chocolate and Chocolate and Love.

Keeping our money in the local economy rather than boosting the profits of a billionaire aiming to colonise space is always positive, so it’s also worth seeking out local shops, hairdressers, cafes and restaurants etc which do gift vouchers.

Gifts made from recycled materials are obviously a good idea. For people, pets, or picnics, it’s possible to get blankets made from recycled wool, and Traidcraft has a selection of gifts made from a variety of recycled materials

For keen readers, a book from an independent bookseller will always be appreciated. If you haven’t got a bookshop within easy reach, buy online from Bookshop.org  or The Hive and a local bookshop will benefit. Or buy a subscription to some high quality journalism with, for instance, the Byline Times, the London Review of Books, or a specialist magazine which covers a particular hobby or interest like cooking or history.

It’s also good to support individual artists and craftspeople struggling to make a living from their own talents. Etsy can be a good platform for finding people like this, but of course if they are local, so much the better.

These are just some suggestions, but hopefully we can gradually move away from buying more ‘stuff’ that has a negative impact on the planet, and may not even be wanted or needed. Let’s resist that pressure to consume, and scale things down. After a couple of very difficult years, this Christmas is a good time to embrace the principle that it really is the thought, and the person, that counts.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020).  Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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