Green Up the Holidays

By Corey Hope Colwell-Lipson and Lynn Colwell

hand holding starsOn Halloween 2006, a neighbor placed small bottles of bubbles in Corey’s daughters’ hands and in that instant, an idea was born. “Why,” Corey wondered, “does Halloween have to be all about the unhealthy stuff? Is it possible to keep the fun, but lose the total focus on conventional candy?” Back home, watching her girls’ joyful faces as they blew bubbles, she had her answer.

In 2007, we launched Green Halloween™, a nonprofit, grassroots community movement to create healthier and more earth-friendly holidays, beginning with Halloween. Although that first year, the initiative was intended for the Seattle area only, parents and businesses across the country turned their Halloweens green in large and small ways. Some held recycled costume-making events, others hosted Halloween parties at retirement homes, while a few creative parents hosted candy exchanges at their children’s schools. Before the candles in our jack-o’-lanterns had burned out, calls started pouring in asking us how to green up Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day.

Until now, most of us have established holiday habits based on what is easy, inexpensive, and traditional, not to mention a secret desire to keep up the Joneses. But today, moms and dads may question whether the way their families celebrate is healthy for their kids and their planet and wonder what they can do to create occasions that everyone can enjoy and feel good about. Fears and concerns surround the safety of everything from food to costumes to gift and decor items, but underlying this, many wonder how on Earth we can continue to party the way we’ve been doing without harming our planet? The truth is, we can’t.

That’s why we wrote and self-published our book, Celebrate Green! Creating Eco-Savvy Holidays, Celebrations, and Traditions for the Whole Family (October, 2008). While we can’t summarize a whole book in this article, we can share with you some of our favorite tips and tricks. And with Halloween and Thanksgiving on their way and the winter holidays just around the corner, you’ll have ample opportunities to give holiday greening a try. Start by picking one or two suggestions or come up with your own. See what fits your family. Get your children involved and incorporate their ideas, too. Make a tradition of making green traditions.

Invitations and cards

Seven billion greeting cards are sold in the US each year. According to, if each one of them were made from tree-free sources, 2.25 million trees (which supply enough oxygen for 1.2 million people a year) would be spared. So this year, kick the conventional greeting cards habit. Buy or make invites, holiday cards, and thank-yous from recycled, 100 percent post-consumer waste or tree-free papers created from sustainable materials, such as hemp, sugar cane, bamboo, recycled denim, or even elephant dung! Using e-cards and the phone, or that ancient tool called word-of-mouth may also work for you, but when etiquette calls for something handwritten, how about using a card implanted with seeds that can later grow into wildflowers?

Making cards is an option as well. But don’t limit yourself to recycling junk mail and old catalogs into new cards. Depending on the celebration, consider using old CDs, tin cans, mint tins, and more. Just about anything can be turned into stunning, unique, handcrafted cards that are gifts in and of themselves.

Finally, always reuse or recycle cards. Cut off the pictures on the front and use for post cards or gift tags. Make decorations like ornaments and placemats. Whatever isn’t used should be recycled or buried in the yard where the paper will decompose.

Gift giving

Mother of two, Carol Olson of Hobart, WA has always been eco-aware. She remembers looking sadly at the trash cans when she was a girl, wondering where all that trash was going to end up. But she experienced an epiphany the night of her daughter’s first birthday. “There we were at 10 PM still opening presents,” she said. “It was overwhelming. So much stuff! I knew most of the things would be broken in no time. What a waste.” She decided that from then on, she would focus on giving meaningful gifts or experiences. Instead of plastic toys, she chose wood. Her own children receive useful items like toothbrushes in their Christmas stockings, along with one or two pieces of candy. “We buy minimally,” she said. “When we do, we focus on gifts that will mean something and/or that will last. Are these things more expensive? Sometimes, but they are worth the extra cost because of their lasting value.”

In thinking about gifts for anyone in the family as well as friends, parents can begin by asking themselves, “How much is enough?” “Where did this gift come from and where will it end up?” “How long will it be used?” and “What will be the impact of this gift on my child and the planet?”

The great news is that if you want to buy green or eco-friendly gifts, it’s no longer hard to find them. Look for gifts made from recycled or natural materials and/or crafted by artisans. Support co-operatives and fair-trade efforts whenever possible. Consider gifts that don’t need wrapping such as travel or other experiences or gifts that give back to nonprofit organizations. Try always to buy locally, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask store managers to stock it. Remember that your values are reflected in every dollar you spend. Gifts of your time, talents, and energy are free and produce no waste and are therefore perfectly green.

Food and drink

If you’ve ever considered going organic, holidays are the perfect time for a trial run. Why? Because it’s a time of celebration, when many of us spend a little more to make the event memorable. So why not invest in our family’s health and the health of our planet at the same time?

Courtney Carlisle’s family went green last Thanksgiving. Living in California where the weather in November is still suitable for outside dining, she rented hay bales for extra seating, used bamboo plates, and corn-based cups and utensils picked up at Whole Foods Market; bought organic/free range and local for most of the food, and topped it all off with biodynamic and organic wine. “My family members have all come around on the environmental impact issue in his/her own time, but I thought that this would be a great chance to show everyone how little you have to give up to make a difference. Everyone responded very well to dinner! This year we will absolutely be having another organic Thanksgiving.”

Packaging, wrapping

Every year over the fall holidays, Americans generate about 25 percent more waste than usual. Much of this is in wrapping and packaging. Some is recycled, but most is not, leaving us with a disturbing landfill legacy.

Eco-savvy parents like Angie Boss of New Palestine, IN suggest making reusable eco-friendly gift bags made from scraps of fabric and ribbon or yarn for tying.

But if you’re not handy, consider some alternatives to expensive, wasteful paper. Wrap gifts in useable gifts, such as scarves, tablecloths, or clothing. Or use new (or gently used) ties, shoelaces or tape measures in lieu of ribbon. If you do wrap with paper, re-used gift and shopping bags can be left plain or decorated. Using old maps, calendars, and catalogs are perfect, especially when paired with a gift that matches the theme. As with greeting cards, there are now many types of 100 percents recycled, tree-free, or plantable wrapping papers on the market. Whatever you do, steer clear of metallic papers as they cannot be recycled after use.

Of course you can avoid wrapping altogether by giving money or gift certificates. Or what about hiding gifts and having recipients ferret them out?


For two generations our family has used an activity-based Advent calendar at Christmastime. Behind each day’s pocket lies a strip of paper detailing a predetermined activity the family can do together such as decorate the tree, make holiday cards, or on Christmas Eve, read The Night Before Christmas. The events are often no cost, low cost, or create no waste but more important, they are meant to bring joy to the family through togetherness. Unfortunately, in many families, holiday activities involve little more than watching TV and eating things that aren’t particularly good for us or opening truckloads of gifts wrapped in miles of paper that generate tons of waste.

So one easy way to go green during any holiday, is to prioritize people over things and to make activities (rather than stuff) central to your family’s holiday experience. To do so, start by assessing your typical holiday doings and find ways to connect your friends and loved ones through engaging activities that everyone will look forward to year after year. With little extra effort you can make the activities even more rewarding by giving your family and friends a healthy and or eco-friendly twist.

For inspiration on creating memorable holiday activities, while considering health and the environment, take a look at what these moms have done:

  • In a bid to allow her children the fun of Halloween without the repercussions of food-chemical overload, mother of three, Amy Porter created a Candy Contract in which she agrees to exchange her children’s unhealthy sweets for mutually agreed-upon, equal value alternatives such as money—usually $10 per full pillowcase, iTune cards, CDs and DVDs, or privileges.
  • Wisconsin mom Stacey Kannenberg was inspired by our community movement, Green Halloween, and switched from giving out candy to offering coins. In addition, whenever she’s asked to participate in a school activity, she volunteers a jar of pennies so the kids can guess how much is inside, then share the bounty.
  • Nancy McPhail and her friends have transitioned from exchanging gifts to helping others in the true spirit of Christmas. Their group, called “H.O.L.I.D.A.Y” (Helping Others Live in Dignity All Year) earmarks money they would spend on each other and, instead, donates to various causes. They share the charitable choices with each other in a newsletter—their gift to each other.

Other ideas:


  • One of our favorite activities for any holiday, including Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, is a progressive meal with nearby friends and family. Each house hosts one course along with an activity the group can enjoy. This relieves a lot of pressure for hosting an entire event and is fun, too. Of course, driving too far is a no-no, so this works best if everyone can walk from house to house. At the very least, be sure to carpool.
  • Stage a post-Halloween candy recycling party. After trick-or-treating, have kids choose a few pieces of candy to keep and put the rest into a big bowl. Have everyone unwrap as many pieces as they can, separating the candy from the wrappers. Play some music while you do. Make up an unwrapping dance! Be silly. Once the candy is unwrapped, add it to the compost pile or yard waste bin. Preteens and teens may enjoy turning the wrappers into wallets or purses that may be used for holiday gifts. Find out how through websites such as The Purse Project (
  • At Thanksgiving, invite your dinner guests to bring one or more colorful, natural, seasonal items with them, such as leaves, pine cones, squash, evergreen boughs, or acorns. As dinner is being prepared, ask the group to work together to create a centerpiece from the materials.

For more ideas on creating green celebrations all year ’round, go to:

For more information on bringing Green Halloween to your home, school or neighborhood, go to:

Lynn Colwell is a mother of three, including Corey, and grandmother of four. She is a life coach, writer, and cofounder of The Green Year™, LLC. Corey Hope Colwell-Lipson is founder of Green Halloween®, cofounder of The Green Year™, LLC, a writer and a licensed marital and family therapist specializing in the transition to parenthood. She is married and the mother of two children, aged seven and four.

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