How to cancel Christmas (your guide to a truly sustainable festive season)

Yes, I’m talking about Christmas already. But not because I’m planning to spam you with lists of stuff you honestly don’t need. Instead, I wanted to raise the idea of cancelling Christmas – be it the whole thing, or simply the parts that make you stressed, poor and miserable.

The thing about cancelling (or toning down) Christmas – which is why I’m bringing it up now – is that you need to do it early. There will probably be some difficult conversations to have and choices to make, and if you have a plan in your mind and have set your boundaries, you’ll find it a lot easier, I promise.

Now I’m not here to tell you that you should cancel Christmas. I’m here to offer you an alternative to the status quo, and talk you though the steps that I took.

Christmas is a non-event for me. I stopped the gifts, the decorations, the excess food, the waste and the stress of it all at least six years ago. For me, Christmas is a quiet, peaceful (and inexpensive) time of year and I love it.

Every year around this time I like to counter all the ‘sustainable things to buy for him / her / them’ gift guides and ‘zero waste gifts for your boss’s wife / dog / second cousin’s goldfish’ posts by talking about how we can go about December WITHOUT BUYING ALL THE STUFF and working ourselves into a frenzy.

Cancelling Christmas might sound a little extreme, but like most things, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even if you’re not up for cancelling Christmas entirely, there are probably aspects of the holiday that you’d like to let go of (or at the very least, tone down).

This is your permission slip to let the stressful, consumer-driven, wasteful, expensive, unfulfilling and unsustainable parts of Christmas go.

Getting started with ‘cancelling Christmas’

The first thing to do is decide which aspects of Christmas you’d like to cancel. It might be the entire thing, or there might just be certain aspects that you dislike. You might like to just do away with the expensive, stressful and wasteful aspects of the festivities.

(For me, cancelling Christmas is not the same as boycotting Christmas. Cancelling is more like opting out, whereas boycotting is actively avoiding Christmas. Boycotting is a lot more work. I might go to Christmas drinks with friends, or eat a mince pie, but more in the spirit of spending time with people whose company I enjoy and indulging in good food than ‘being Christmassy’. I cancel the parts I don’t want to engage in, and I make exceptions.)

To decide which aspects of Christmas you’d like to cancel, take some time to think about what Christmas means to you, which bits bring you joy, and which bits bring anguish.

(You may love Christmas baking or decorating the tree with your family. You may hate going to your cousin’s Christmas party with all the single-use plastic, processed food and your racist uncle, or find the office tradition of buying ‘novelty’ gifts for everyone in your team a little wasteful.)

Action step: write a list of all the Christmas activities and traditions you’re expecting to have this year, and divide them up into ‘things you love’, ‘things you’re ready to cancel’ and ‘undecided’. You can do this alone, or with your family – whichever you think will work best.

Those things on your ‘ready to cancel’ list are your starting point.

Start making alternative festive plans now

Hoping Christmas will go away by ignoring it until Christmas eve (when you realise it hasn’t gone away, and panic purchase a bunch of things) is not a good strategy. Instead, you need to be thinking about this stuff early. The sooner the better.

The first part of making alternative plans is thinking about what it is you don’t like about the existing plans. From there you can decide if there are alternatives that might work better or be a compromise. (I’m not saying you have to compromise, but you might prefer to ease in gradually, especially if your family is less than convinced.)

I also found it helpful to distinguish between what I actually liked and wanted to do, and what I felt obligated to do. If I’m going to celebrate Christmas, I want to come from a place of joy and not a place of obligation or guilt.

Action step: have a think about the following categories, and decide what aspects of each you like and what you don’t like, and how you could make them better (or whether you can do without).

  • Decorations;
  • Food;
  • Gift wrapping;
  • Gifts.

If you’d like some ideas for low waste options for Christmas, you’ll find this post helpful.

Make your rules and set your boundaries

The next step is to make some rules around your Christmas celebrations this year. They might be rules just for you, but more likely there will be rules (let’s call them requests, it sounds less forceful) that you need others to hear.

You might decide that you’re only giving gifts to children this year, and not adults; you might decide that you’re cooking a vegetarian Christmas dinner rather than trying to cater for everyone else; you might decide to only buy second-hand gifts and nothing new; you might decide something else entirely.

Action step: when you’re thinking about your rules, it’s really helpful to think about your ‘why’. What is it about the current situation that you find stressful and why do you want to change? You might have spiritual reasons, environmental reasons, mental health reasons, financial reasons, a mix of a few different things or something else entirely. But knowing why you want to create change will enable you to have better conversations, and also keep you motivated to stick to your rules.

Have some awkward conversations

When it comes to gifts especially, you’ll need to speak to those people you are expecting to give to you (or members of your family). But there might be other things you need to speak about, too. The sooner, the better.

It will probably be an uncomfortable conversation, and can go two ways. On one hand, they might be relieved and pleased to know there’s less expectation, pressure and expense. On the other hand, they might be outraged.

There will probably be a bit of confusion too – why not? What changed? It can be helpful to explain your ‘why’ – that stuff/waste/running around/ spending all your money/trying to do it all makes you anxious, you already have what you need, you’d rather they save their money, Christmas isn’t about the stuff…

If there is a lot of resistance, you might want to discuss compromises. (Then again, you might not!) Compromise a a good way to ease into the shifting of ‘tradition’ and expectation. If ‘no gifts’ is too brutal, maybe a secret Santa arrangement (where a pool of people only buy one gift for one person, rather than for everyone) or some rules around certain types of gifts (no plastic! only second-hand! etc) or choosing experiences instead.

Action step: have any difficult conversations that you need to, but try to make them two-way conversations and not one-way lists of demands. Express your wants and needs but listen to concerns too and try to find a joint place of understanding.

Expect resistance (change never comes in a straight line)

Just because you’ve set some rules, it doesn’t mean that others will follow or respect them. It can be helpful to have a back-up plan – what you’ll say and what you’ll do if people disregard your choices.

Shaking up Christmas can be a big deal for some people, and they may resist. It is my experience that it takes a few years to bring everyone to the party. What helps is sticking to your principles.

For example, you ask for no gifts, and you receive a bunch of stuff you don’t need and know you won’t use. I’m not sure you need to be overly gracious (although you don’t need to be rude). If you have clearly stated your rules and set your boundaries (no gifts, thanks) and someone has just stomped all over them, that’s on them, not you.

You can be polite, and say that you appreciate the gesture but you did clearly ask for no gifts. If that’s too hard (it’s very hard!) you can be polite, say nothing, and make a plan to gift them or donate them as soon as possible.

(I am wary of keeping things when I’ve specifically asked for nothing, as I don’t want to undermine my own rules and reinforce to the other person that they were in fact right. It might be easier in that moment, but it’s not helping in the long-term – and there are a lot more Christmases to come. Here’s a guide to donating unwanted Christmas gifts.)

You might only mention that you donated those unwanted gifts a few months later, when there’s less pressure. It might be that you don’t bring it up until the following Christmas, but these conversations need to happen, and to keep on happening, if you want to create change.

Action step: without overthinking things too much, give some thought to some of the stumbling blocks and how you might be able to deal with them. Having a back-up plan can be helpful.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

Don’t be afraid to try things. It’s okay to give things a go and change your mind. If you cancel Christmas and decide it’s no fun at all, you can ensure next year is the funnest yet. You can go strong this year and soften things up a little next year, if need be.

Sometimes breaking the traditions you’ve held for years can be helpful in deciding which bits you actually do enjoy (and miss).

Now I’d love to hear from you! Which bits of Christmas do you love, and which bits are you ready to cancel? Have you already started cancelling Christmas – what did you do and how did it go? How have you adapted over time? Any advice to add? We’d love to hear your thoughts so please share in the comments below!

How to cancel Christmas (your guide to a truly sustainable festive season)How to cancel Christmas (your guide to a truly sustainable festive season)
26 replies
  1. veepas
    veepas says:

    Hello Lindsay – I couldn’t agree more! Like you, our immediate family chose to step back from the end of year madness years ago. It was easy as all my husband’s relatives are in the UK and I have very few here in Australia. It’s such a relief once the whole consumer frenzy is over and the canned carols stop playing in the stores :)

    Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Veepas, it definitely helps when some family are overseas, I agree! (My family is in the UK also.) Because I grew up in the UK I still struggle to associate Christmas with summer – I’m getting excited about planting out my summer veggies and then I hear carols and I’m momentarily confused. And it’s definitely less of a thing here than it is in the UK. All of which has helped me!

      Reply
  2. Annie
    Annie says:

    Hello, Lindsay. Thank you for your timely, thought-provoking post. It’s such a relief to know that others wish to escape the madness of Christmas! I would have opted out many years ago, but met with too much resistance. However, now that my husband and I are older I’m finding it easier to to step back from the celebrations. Any gifts this year will be eco -friendly, and I’m considering giving only to children in coming years.

    Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Annie and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad to hear that you are finally able to ease into a way of celebrations that work for you. I do think, every year just tweak things a little more, test stuff out, see what the reaction is and also how you feel. There will be plenty more Christmases, to get to your ideal!

      Reply
  3. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I think these are all great ideas and ways to bring back the joy of just spending time with friends and family, instead of getting carried away with all the decorations and buying.
    However, I do disagree on one thing: If someone ends up giving you a gift after you’ve asked for none, I would consider it extremely rude to point that out at the time of gift giving. Maybe that person gets their joy from giving or just really saw something that spoke to them as being a perfect gift for you. Either way, you just squashed them on a supposed joyous day. In that case, I think one should graciously accept the gift (and quietly donate later if not wanted). And just try again next year to ask for no gifts.

    Reply
    • Kathie Hoyer
      Kathie Hoyer says:

      In my experience it is sometimes hard for people to receive a gift when they have nothing to give in return – backed up by my anthropology syllabus (!) read Marcel Mauss ‘The Gift’ – and so I think *receiving* a gift and showing gratitude is a wonderful part of celebrating Christmas. We bring gifts to our hosts because they have opened their home to us. We experience joy when we see someone appreciate a gift we give. Learning gratitude for *things* exchanged helps us to learn gratitude for experiences and relationships, which in the long run is what lasts, and gives back the most.

      Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Lisa! Thanks for your comments and you raise some interesting points. I have never actually told someone that I didn’t want their gift on being given it, and I honestly don’t think I would be brave enough to do so even if I wanted to. I also think there’s a lot of nuance around context, type of gift, who the giver and receiver is, conversations that have been had in the past…

      But I do know someone who has done this, and I think it is interesting to see it from their perspective. In this case, they had set their rules and boundaries on the number of gifts very clearly, and the giver had agreed. Then, on the day, the giver gave more gifts. And so the person I knew said that they’d been clear, and gave the extra gifts back.

      I can see that to someone looking in it might come across as rude, but really it is just as rude to disregard someone else’s requests and stomp all over their boundaries. You say that saying something squashes the giver, but it can also be argued that not saying something squashes the receiver. Whichever way, someone loses. Which is why having awkward conversations is so important!

      And of course the way these messages are conveyed and delivered, the tone, all of these things can make things more or less rude. My point was just, you don’t need to feel that you have to take or keep things just because the giver does not respect your wishes. (If you’d like to in order to keep the peace, I get it!)

      Anyway, the conclusion from the person I know? The givers were very offended and complained about it… But they didn’t do it again.

      Reply
  4. Kyra
    Kyra says:

    What a great subject! Traditionally, in the Netherlands we do not give gifts with Christmas (but this is changing I am afraid). In my family, gifts are still given on the 5th of December, Sinterklaas; for this I save international newspapers to pack the parcels, they will end up in the recycle bin for paper. Very often we homemake our presents (from cakes to hotwaterbottle covers).
    I love Christmas because of the seasonal feeling and it aims to get the persons you love most around the fireplace and drink hot cocoa. For dinner we will bake pancakes in the small gourmet pans (do you know what I mean? Every person is supposed to bake their own food (usually meat, but not for us) in little pans on a spiritus flame). This meal makes that diner will not be gobbled away in 15 mins. and gives plenty to talk and laugh about. We make sweet (fruit, maple syrup, maybe even some cointreau flambé) and savoury (pizza-)pancakes. From these last leftovers (onion, leek, tomatoes, spinach) we will have a hearty soup the next day (I will add pre-soaked beans) after our family walk.
    Christmas decorations are made from natural finds from earlier walks (good excuse to get them outside): cones, fallen branches, leaves but also pages from old books.
    No stress, just being together and this is what makes Christmas so precious for me.

    Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Kyra, thanks so much for sharing this! The food all sounds delicious! Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out just right :)

      I think the northern/southern hemisphere difference has quite an impact on Christmas, actually. When I lived in the UK I used to love cooking and baking – and it was so cold in winter.

      There’s something about the festivities getting us through the coldest, misterable months. Here on Christmas day it is usually too hot to actually have the oven on, so lunch tends to be salad. No-one is drinking hot cocoa! (In fact there is a bit of a (non-commercial) thing here ‘Christmas in July’ where people do Christmassy stuff when it is actually winter!)

      Reply
  5. Deb
    Deb says:

    Thank you for such a well written, thoughtful post. I also think it’s perfect timing, since some areas of a country are already experiencing snow!
    I agree with everything the author said, and I just want to add a few more insights that hopefully will help others to contemplate how they want to design their perfect holiday season.
    I could never not celebrate the holidays, because for me, the season represents joy, peace, love, community, etc. I see most – not all – of people who are a little bit more gracious or kind to others. It’s like a reset, a reminder, which we all need from time to time.
    I also could never not decorate, inside or outside, because I also think what our world needs, and what our lives need, from time to time is a little magic. All the other months and days run together, and what I love about the time between October and December is that you can add a little sparkle, street lights, color, etc., And it makes everything look just a little more lovely.
    I hope others consider that, because there are a lot of positive effects that come from celebrating the season that do not have to circle around consumerism. There are a lot of subtle, lovely moments that make this such a magical time for others.
    Also, as an ex-retail buyer, I can tell you there is a reason why most of the hiring is done in the first quarter of the year. The fourth quarter is when companies make their money. They’re only doing their job, which in turn gives others jobs. So I encourage you not to be a blind consumer, but to purchase items with thought and meaning. Support small businesses instead of huge corporations, which is even more important this year. Maybe perishable goods instead of throw away goods? I know firsthand, even while I am practicing a sustainable lifestyle myself, that commerce = jobs for our people.

    While considering how to design the most perfect holiday season for you, consider volunteering, or working with a local church that helps the needy, or anything that represents the true meaning of why we even have this time of year in the first place. I myself am not a religious person anymore, but my family buys our tree every year from the Catholic school down the street, and the proceeds go to those kids. I love that.

    You get the picture. People always need hope, love, community, joy, peace, good will… Especially this year! My experience of the holidays – without the craziness of buying a gift for everyone in the world, only my loved ones – is that the season gives our world exactly those things that our heart and soul desires. It would indeed be a bleak world and a bleak winter if those traditions were given up forever.

    Reply
    • Deb
      Deb says:

      I forgot to say that I’m going to start tipping my postal carrier this Xmas as well! I am ashamed to say that this is the first year that I’ve truly appreciated the postal service, and I definitely want to show my love for my regular carrier.

      Reply
      • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
        Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

        Hi Deb, thanks so much for sharing all your thoughts. You don’t say but I’m guessing that you’re in the US? Wherever we live, Christmas has a slightly different meaning and context. Being in Australia for example, Christmas is in the middle of summer, when it’s hot and you don’t want the oven on and the days are lighter for longer so decorations are less impactful. I think being in a cold climate, there is a slightly different appeal to some of these cosy things.

        I definitely agree with your comments about community and giving. And if/when we find joy in activities like decorating, embrace them!

        And yes! Supporting small business. We don’t need to make any billionaires any richer at Christmas. Share the love.

        Reply
  6. Nadja
    Nadja says:

    Hi Lindsay,
    Fabulous post!
    I’ve been mentioning to friends that I feel like I don’t want or need Christmas especially in this very funny 2020 year. You totally struck a chord with me.
    However, there are definitely aspects which I can’t let go and for me the biggest one is baking Christmas biscuits, which I have been doing since childhood and I love baking my grandma’s recipes along with others.
    I also know that some of my family won’t agree at all with letting go of Christmas. Luckily over many years I have made it clear to most of them that I don’t value gifts unless they are really useful. Most of the time they respect this and give me either books (cook books or novels) which I absolutely love, consumables or something homemade. Nearly 3 years ago now we have built a cute Christmas tree from old pallet wood and are looking forward to decorating this again this year with all the baubles, which we had collected over the years.
    It’s been a few years now that I only give homemade consumable gifts. Jams, chutneys, candied or spiced nuts, Christmas biscuits, mustard… At the beginning (even though I had told everyone that this is what to expect) I felt a bit awkward about it when they spent money to purchase gifts for me. But they always seemed grateful and said they enjoyed the gifts. By now they know what to expect and can adjust their gifts for me accordingly if they feel the need.
    Thank you for this post, Lindsay

    Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks Nadja and I love how you’ve toned down Christmas to make it work for you, and adapted over the years (yay for awkward conversations!). I’m glad your family appreciate your homemade gifts. They take a lot of work and effort and love.

      Thanks so much for sharing :)

      Reply
  7. Louise
    Louise says:

    Wow thank you for this great post;I was already stressing re Xmas this year.I have already told my family I don’t want any gifts,It didn’t go down very well. I am on a pension and not able to recipicate,as I always get very expensive gifts eg a new iPad or new tv.
    I love spending time with my family and must say love the food.also part of my family live in another state and not able to see them this year,so this year is bittersweet.
    This post is giving me some perspective and glad I am not the only one who is getting stressed over this “merry season” thanks

    Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Louise! It can be hard to ask for no gifts, and especially in the first year. If your family really aren’t getting it, you could suggest some ‘non stuff’ options – like vouchers for an experience that you could all do together, or a restaurant voucher, or even that they make a donation to charity – money or stuff – on your behalf. Sometimes people are just itching to spend money! People can find the flat out ‘no gifts’ ask a bit confronting. But that doesn’t mean you need to compromise on what you want. Good luck!

      I wrote this a couple of years ago, which might help: https://treadingmyownpath.com/2016/11/24/a-zero-waste-guide-to-gifts/

      Reply
  8. SarahN
    SarahN says:

    My nuclear family are all adults and we largely circulate lists of what we’d like. Mine is curated to be at a price point I know appeals! My brothers is more ambitious and aspirational (though last year included two furniture items which I sourced second hand and coordinated delivery – the list allowed me something I felt fitted my values and his desires). Some years I spend a lot and sometimes I spend less, thankfully no complaints! And beyond my nuclear family and a partner, I bemoan most gift getting or receiving… it’s usually expensive and not valued, and often off the Mark.

    But I continue to “be in the spirit” and partake in work Kris Kringle… trying to match a gift to the person but also my green ways…

    Reply
  9. Abbie
    Abbie says:

    Having only my parents and brother here in Aus (the rest of the relatives are in the UK) it already makes Christmas easier, but a few years ago I convinced everyone to just not give gifts to each other – what are you going to buy me that I want that I wouldn’t already have bought myself? and vice versa. There are only two grandkids, and presents remained for them (they don’t get many thankfully).
    But what I found was that I missed all the crafting and cooking and GIVING at Christmas time – I like giving gifts, I like planning out what I was going to make and having to sew or cook or whatever for others – something I hadn’t considered before my plan of ‘no presents’ was happily adopted by the family! So certainly, it pays to consider whether your plan is actually what you want – because my focus was on reduce, not on whether this was what I really wanted!!

    Reply
  10. Lori Heximer
    Lori Heximer says:

    As someone who hates malls and shopping I actually weirdly like Christmas shopping. I like the challenge of finding something unique. Coming from a small town almost all my gifts are bought from local independent stores. Sometimes it’s things other times it’s GC’s – nothing like a GC to the local brewery and chocolate store. Sometimes it’s second hand this year for our nieces we went together the grandparents and other Aunt and Uncle and got them a second hand paddle board, something they’ve wanted and will use. For the adults on one side of the family we draw names and buy for one person. Even my mom is getting better at this one year she gave us a GC to get our windows cleaned. Last year she gave my daughter an avalanche course as she has just taken up ski touring. We don’t buy for a lot of people and have never worried about buying for neighbours, bosses etc. If I’m going to someones house and feel need to bring something it would something I made or wine. This year with covid more than ever I will be supporting my local businesses as much as I can.

    Reply
  11. Phoebe
    Phoebe says:

    Thanks Lindsay for a really thought provoking post. I wholeheartedly endorse the practice of ‘editing’ Christmas traditions and making sure that you spend and celebrate this time of year in a way that is meaningful to you and your family. There are so many things that happen without question every year as they are just ‘what we do’. I found myself enduring rather than enjoying Christmas for many years and then we had kids! Having small children brings a new perspective and motivation for making Christmas a special time, but it also brings a lot of extra pressure to be part of all of the events with extended family, with friends, at school and in our local community. I continue to try to make this time of year meaningful, enjoyable, and less wasteful, while trying not to be a total killjoy. It’s such a fine balance.

    Reply
  12. Mel
    Mel says:

    Hi Lindsay,

    Thank you for continuing to post positive and useful posts/emails this year, to keep us on track.

    In regards to this Christmas, marred by COVID, we have had our local grocer deliver fresh fruit, veg, eggs and honey to our nearest and dearest, that covered each family (so that is already taken care of). It helps keep them out of the grocery store and the $ is going to a local family run business.

    As for decorations, we get the table cloth out and decorations we have had passed on to us and what the kids have made and watch old Christmas movies and play some Carols through Telstra TV (YouTube), it shows you a nice setting by a Christmas tree with a fire place while playing soft Christmas music.

    Funnily enough what the kids want this Christmas are online keyboard lessons and the other wants an online game, so no wrapping there!

    Our children’s new school told them in the first week, last term, that there is no such thing as Santa, that went down like a lead balloon; so we are trying to keep it cheery and happy especially for this Christmas with so much magic taken away from them this year, due to the COVID horror story and no Santa.

    Wishing you and your readers a safe Christmas.
    Mel

    Reply

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