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By Sister Sue Gallagher and Brother Ryan Roberts

A few days ago, as I passed a sister in the corridor of the Convent of Mercy in Merion, Pennsylvania, she asked, “Sue what’s better—a live tree or a fake one?” I gave her my first, unresearched answer, “A fake one, but you have to use it for six years.” This got me thinking— what is the best choice for this much-loved Christmas decoration?

As I pondered the question, I was struck by two issues: the sister was considering the question of sustainability (even at Christmas!) and she was inviting herself and me to a transformation of consciousness. Not everyone celebrates Christmas in the same ways but turning our minds to sustainable practices is a faithful discipline for any time of year. Our choices make a difference, and every day—many times a day—we have the chance to make a difference in our relationship with our home, Mother Earth.

For many of us, few things evoke the Christmas Season like a tree, and making a mindful choice of tree is an excellent, sustainable way of thinking.* Artificial trees include plastics made from petroleum—a product of extractive industries—but one tree could last for years or even decades! An evergreen tree is renewable, but it’s essentially disposable and may be grown in a large field that might have been used to grow food or biofuel. One could get a tree with the root ball attached; it would need extra attention and a place to plant it come January. And of course, all of these choices require transport to their final destination; how far did they come to get here? One could choose a tree alternative, such as a wire or cardboard tree that stores flat and could be used year after year. You could even rig a ladder or choose a spot on the wall to hang lights and decorations in lieu of a tree or go treeless altogether!

Decorations abound for trees, homes and yards. Maybe you love to put candles in the window as a sign of welcome. If you do, what kinds of candles do you use: electric, paraffin, soy, beeswax or construction paper? Hanging balls and baubles can add a colorful flare to any space, and acquiring new ones comes with choices like “Plastic, glass or wood?” If you hang electric lights, do you prefer incandescent bulbs or LEDs? There are a lot of ways we spruce up our spaces at Christmas time, and we can say as much with the “how” as with the “what.”

Gift giving at this time of year goes all the way back to the magi in Bethlehem. If you join the wise men in showering loved ones with gifts, do you make them yourself, buy them second hand, purchase locally from a vendor who is struggling or have them delivered from a big warehouse? A different choice would be to make a gift of service, of shared time in a new experience or of mutual generosity to someone in need. Of course, no gift is complete without a loving presentation. You could wrap it in commercial wrapping paper or a shiny mylar sheet. Alternatively, you could use a sheet of last week’s newspaper or a reusable gift bag. For a dramatic gesture in a crowd, you could place unwrapped gifts in a giant bag like Saint Nicholas and distribute them to everyone in turn. The spirit of Christmas is easy to embody in giving gifts; it’s a great place to contemplate sustainability.

Food may be the most universal locus of celebratory gatherings. Even here, there’s room to think about sustainability. When we choose dishes, we can consider how the food was raised and where. We can think about the laborers who tilled, fertilized, fed and harvested. If we didn’t grow the food ourselves, who profited in bringing it to our table, and who could have profited but didn’t? Will our meal bring health to our guests in addition to delighted tastebuds?

The sustainability mindset can reach out into many aspects of our activities in Advent and Christmas. Any and all of our traditions contain countless decisions, and all our decisions have consequences we may not have previously considered. While not everyone celebrates with all the same traditions, we are all called to consider the environmental impact of decorations in our spaces, gifts we give and wrappings we use, and meals we eat. Are there ways we can welcome the Christ-child more simply? In what ways are you making decisions for a more sustainable Christmas this year? Send your ideas to SGallagher@sistersofmercy.org, and we’ll collect them to be shared in the future to inspire others in the Mercy family.


*For more answers to this question and some alternatives to Christmas trees, check: “Are Christmas Trees Sustainable? The Real Environmental Impact,” by Liam Pritchett and Sustainable Christmas Trees.