The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

September 25, 2008

Fake Plastic Holidays

Walk into the local drug store (this happens to be Walgreens on Powell Street in San Francisco) in September, and this is what you find:

We know this. It’s not news that Halloween has become a big plastic party. And it wasn’t so different when I was a kid in the 70’s. Plastic-wrapped candy in plastic bags and fake plastic costumes, which my family scorned because we always made ours from scratch. (“Do you think that kid’s costume is homemade or store bought? Looks like store bought. Lazy.”) And it wasn’t just that our mom had so much more time to make costumes than other mothers who worked outside the home because when we got a bit older, we all made our own, cobbled together from whatever was around the house.

The rest of the holidays are no better. Fake plastic jack-o-lanterns are replaced with plastic-lined cans of pumpkin pie filling (read: BPA) because god forbid anyone should clean out and bake an actual pumpkin. You mean they’re not just for Halloween? And of course, even before Thanksgiving is over, the Christmas plastic will be up. Fake plastic snowmen and tinsel and electric candles. Plastic crap toys and plastic appliances and all manner of plastic gadgets: iPods and phones and the latest video game or talking toy.

We spend a lot of time trying to find healthy alternatives to all the environmentally-destructive merchandise that’s pushed on us during the holiday season. Toys made from wood instead of plastic. More wholesome sweets. Handmade gifts instead of store bought. Fair trade. Organic. Gifts of experiences instead of physical goods. We spend a lot of time on these things. And that’s important.

But is it enough? How about questioning the whole compulsive holiday gift-giving assumption? What’s driving us? What’s our motivation? Is it to have a quality experience with people we love? Or is it because everyone else is doing it and we don’t want to feel left out? Or we don’t want our kids to feel left out? Are there ways to subvert the holidays and remake them in our own image, rather than simply “greening” what may be toxic for our souls to begin with?

If the holidays stress us out, make us feel inadequate, drive us to exhaustion trying to meet everyone’s expectations, then it doesn’t matter how environmentally-friendly the gifts are. The whole system has become fundamentally corrupted. How can we create rituals for ourselves and our families that are life-sustaining rather than draining? How can we approach the holidays from a place of actual holiness?

Holy. It’s not a word I use lightly. (Well, except to exclaim “Holy crap!”) I’m not even religious, so I don’t mean it in that sense. What I mean is finding center and balance and respect for ourselves and those we love so that we’re not buffeted by the massive tide of not just commercialism but basic inauthencity. Motivations as insincere as plastic itself. How can we be true to ourselves and honor the holidays without being drowned by them?

This post is full of questions and not many answers because I haven’t found the solutions myself. But I feel the coming waves of anxiety and hope for something calmer this season. Last year, I bought movie passes for all my friends and family, feeling it was one of the more ecologically-friendly gift alternatives. But there was no joy in it. Merely a feeling that I had checked off one more chore from my list. But finding a pumpkin and spending a whole day making pumpkin soup — that was a joyful experience. I hope to fill this season with moments like that.

Here’s one idea that arrived in my email box today from Co-op America (soon to be renamed Green America, apparently. *Sigh*) Reverse Trick-or-Treating, “the new Halloween tradition of children handing Fair Trade chocolate back to their neighbors. The candy is attached to a card that includes information about social and environmental justice issues in the cocoa industry and how Fair Trade chocolate helps farmers across the world in cocoa growing communities.”

It’s not the answer and could be seen as just another thing to buy or to do. But the essential idea tickled me, turning the holiday on its head like that. The trick-or-treaters giving back to the givers and helping to spread a new idea.

What are your suggestions? See any ways around the holiday madness? Please share.

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8 years ago

I’m an atheist so Xmas is just a nice day off. I sometimes leave town or a week or two (NYC is nice during the holidays), or if I’m in town I go to the movies, walk in Golden Gate Park, or go running at Ocean Beach. Last year I went to Beijing and DPRK during the holidays. My big “holidays” are May Day and a few anti-imperialist Cuban and North Korean independence celebrations and Stalin’s birthday on December 18.

I buy white and orange pumpkins for my front steps on Halloween. I usually take off Halloween night because I can’t stand all the kids coming around. For a few years I gave out quarters or pencils, but I’d rather just not deal with them at all. The neighborhood I live in now is overrun with breeders. Do people even consider that not reproducing is hands down the most environmentally conscious thing they can be doing?!!

Zombies Girl
15 years ago

A few years ago I decided to use Halloween, I’ve been giving away small toys the kids get from parties, or just never take an interest in and stickers (a huge collection i amassed as a child, a box full of them that followed me from my mother’s house when i moved out) though not entirely plastic free, it’s my plan of action until supplies run low.
What I’ve been thinking about the last year or so is Christmas trees, I love them, and though I know its not very green I cant help but buying one every year. My father, who started a second family just after I graduated high school is a very green person, (the solar company I work for is family-owned, his initiative) He bought a plastic Christmas tree a few years back, and I cringed at the idea, however his waste is less than ours, though we do make mulch out of tree every year, he packs his away and pulls it out the next year. I find myself feeling guilty at the annual purchase, I suppose the truly green thing would be to inherit that huge chunk of plastic one day…

15 years ago

Last year, I gave friends homemade cookies and a donation in their honor to Heifer International. I gave relatives a wall calendar with personalized photos from Unfortunately, the calendars come wrapped in plastic and with a plastic spiral ring. Overall, though, I enjoyed making the cookies and the calendars and I hope the recipients enjoyed them, too.

15 years ago

I have to admit that I use a fair amount of plastic during this and all holidays. I even have fake jack o’ lanterns made out of a latex rubber, that I carved. But on the other hand- I don’t carve perfectley good food and use them every year with their battery LED lights- and I have fake christmas trees (not plastic) that I re-use every year, with led lights.
I hear what you are saying about the plastic use this time of year, but you know Parents too have changed. They aren’t going to let their kids eat a HOmemeade popcorn ball they got trick or treating- hell even my mom wouldn’t let me eat one. So in difference- I give out quarters, not candy. And I save the pumpkins for baking!

15 years ago

Halloween is a big deal for us. We always make our costumes.We always go big. This usually involves copious amounts of cardboard and duct tape. Since we have stopped buying things, I think we’re going to have a challenge on our hands this year. Not dressing up is not an answer. I think we’re going to sew costumes out of whatever fabric we can find for free.

Giving candy is also a problem since we’re off packaging that’s not recyclable. We can’t give out apples or homemade anything as it will end up in the garbage (poison paranoia). We don’t get too many kids, so I think we’re going to go with full size paper wrapped chocolate bars. It’ll be a bit more expensive, but at least we’ll be the cool house on the street. I’m also going to write a note about recycling on it.

15 years ago

Here’s an idea: Buy Nothing Christmas.

Diane MacEachern
15 years ago

Ultimately, parents have got to take the lead on this. If we all stop buying this junk, kids will still enjoy the holiday – probably even more. My kids used to love improvising costumes, and they soon realized a pillow case was every bit as effective as a plastic bag at collecting candy!

Jennifer Taggart
15 years ago

I don’t like the over-commercialization of the holidays, but I have to say I do like Halloween and Christmas. I like the spirit of sharing, of connecting, or spending time together. And I do like giving friends and family members gifts – but I try to make it meaningful, whether store bought or homemade, and not something to be disposed of quickly. Not something given just to give – so sometimes that means I don’t give a gift, but just a heartfelt card, and other times the gift is “big” if needed.

A Slice of the Pie
15 years ago

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. I just wish I had started thinking sooner. If I had, I would have worked to create better traditions for my children. I am stuck in these over-commercialized patterns and it’s very hard to break free and to convince the realitives that the kids don’t need more stuff just because it’s a holiday or birthday.

But now I think I need to give this more thought and create an action plan for this year. Thanks for the nudge.

15 years ago

I totally agree with pretty much everything said here – and the general sentiment that all the plastic junk that is EVERYWHERE during the holidays is just glutenous and horrible. I also am not a big fan of gift giving that involves giving people – well frankly, crap – just for the sake of giving a gift. With that said, I love giving gifts, but I try very hard to give people something USEFUL that I know they will like. Even if that means the best thing is a gift card, (yes *sigh* I i know more plastic) I’d rather give a gift card that will be used, than junk that won’t. I’d also rather buy someone something that I may not totally in favor of buying myself, if it’s something they would buy anyway. I figure I’d rather buy that thing that is going to get bought regardless, instead of having them end up with 1 more consumer item – just because I think it’s more “eco-friendly.”

As someone who is very picky about things like soaps, lotions, etc., I absolutely HATE getting random things from people who feel they have to give me a gift. Don’t even get me started on scented candles :) ick! To me getting a gift I can’t use and don’t want is more of a burden then a “gift.” As a conscious environmentalist i can’t throw useful things away, so then I’m in a position of needing to freecycle the gift, finding a friend who would actually like it, or re-gifting it.

With all that said, I will comment on the DIY gift ideas. While I think eco-conscious folks often think this is the best avenue, I sometimes disagree. Don’t get me wrong – the right DIY gift can be wonderful (i.e. the scarf my friend knitted me a few years ago is still one of my favorites) BUT I also think it can go horribly wrong. Some folks think – I’m going to be crafty and not consumery and make everyone something (i.e. soap) – but if I get that soap and don’t like it, to me it’s just another wasteful item I have to get rid of. …Just my 2 cents.

15 years ago

This flood of plastic does have a solution besides abstaining. People rarely do, but then feel guilty about it. Conventional plastic items can be made biodegradable. Read about it at

knutty knitter
15 years ago

I run a whole shopfull of handmade decorations and small toys, 90% of which are knitted by me or my mother who is great at inventing new patterns.

We sell to the tourists mostly but also to locals. I give lots of them away as christmas presents to friends and family as well.

I don’t earn nearly enough to make a living but we do at least cover our costs and I love to do it.

We don’t have Halloween much here – not our tradition. We do have fireworks on Guy Fawkes night.

Christmas is in summer so most of the food is salads etc but we do still have the plum pudding (home made from an old recipe). We also do fresh peas in individual small glasses if possible.

Presents are minimal but usually very funny as we long ago decided not to spend more than $10 on anyone. That does not include time or effort. Only the children are exempt from the rule.

We have lots of fun :)

viv in nz

Condo Blues
15 years ago

I’m a costumer, so Halloween’s easy for me. My husband and I have a closet dedicated to costumes we’ve worm (most I’ve made) for shows over the years. We wear the costumes as is or mix and match to come up with something else.

As for Christmas, I’m going to be wildly unpopular here, but I like it. I like decorating with decorations that I’ve had since I was a teenager (that my grandmother made) and collecting some tree ornaments over the years with my husband. I plan on using those ornaments until I die even though some of them are plastic. And I like giving gifts. Not as a status symbol, but as a token of appreciation. I gift show all year long – because when I’m with my family I’m looking for hints on what they’d like and wouldn’t expect it as a gift. For example, I did a family gift for season tickets to a nearby water park (it was actually cheaper than buying individual gifts) because the mom and kids kept saying, “hey someday would should do this because we like to go here.” and didn’t. That was a low waste gift that they really enjoyed. You can do low waste if you do some recon throughout the year on your recepients. I’ve given zoo memberships, theater tickets, handmade items that I’ve bought at summer craft fairs. You can do it, just think outside of the big box store.

The Green Cat
15 years ago

Years ago I found that obligatory gift-giving made me very unhappy. There was no joy in buying something because I “had to” (as you mention in your post Beth). So I stopped doing it. Not being a Christian, is wasn’t hard for me to give up Christmas. I find it interesting that many people will make derogatory comments toward me if I mention that I don’t celebrate Christmas. “What are you doing for Christmas?” “Oh, I don’t celebrate Christmas?” “What?? What’s wrong with you? You’re so anti-holiday!”

I have no problem with other folks celebrating it–particularly if they take joy in the holiday. I do feel sad when folks mention they hate the trappings of the holiday, or the stress, or the money, etc but continue to take part in those things they don’t enjoy. To me, a holiday should be a day of joy to be celebrated!

For the past 7 years, on December 25th, I have celebrated a holiday. I call it “Curry-Movie Day.” I gather whatever friends are around and go see a movie and go out for Indian food. It is always a different crowd of folks and it is always a good time. No stress, no financial burden, no obligatory gifts, and no waste!

15 years ago

Great post!

We always made our costumes at home, too. My favorite was when my grandmother made me a mermaid tail. Now, as a teacher, we dress up for school and we’re making our own costumes this year. The science department has decided to go as elements on the periodic table, and I’m going as gold. I’m just going to borrow some gold clothing from folks and make a sign with the symbol that looks like what you’d find on the periodic table. It’s fun!

The crazy thing is that my students expect all of their teachers to give them candy on halloween. I think I might give out some apples this year and talk about composting the cores.

Anway, I like to use natural things, like REAL pumpkins to decorate. Gourds, corn stalks and hay bales are also nice options that can be composted to improve your soil in the spring.

For Christmas, there’s nothing like heirlooms. My grandmother crocheted our Christmas tree skirt, and the majority of our ornaments have come from family members or were made by a friend or us when we were children. These are so much more meaningful than this new plastic crap.

And isn’t it even crazy that we’re thinking about this stuff in September!!!

15 years ago

We get a fair amount of trick or treating traffic from neighborhood kids, babes to teenagers, and I buy favorite commercial chocolates because I remember exactly what I thought of the folks who tried to palm off pennies, etc. when I was a kid. It’s a sort of insurance policy for a childless household that’s been marked as weird for our lawn upkeep practices, etc.
In the fall, we buy mums (alas usually in plastic pots) and, in the past, a pumpkin. We plant the mums and we don’t carve our pumpkin — we like it under the tree at Christmas and decorated for St. Patrick’s day and surrounded by eggs for Easter (if it makes that long) then on to pumpkin leek soup with the first leeks of the year. This year though we actually got pumpkins from the seeds we planted from last year’s pumpkin and got six pumpkins, a few rather large, so maybe some will be sacrificed earlier.
Thanksgiving chez moi is from scratch and we try to go local.
My family has long of tradition of giving IOU’s for holiday gifts (that never get made good on) or stuff you need, a couple steps better than underwear and socks, but not a whole lot. I do engage in what could be considered competitive cookie baking but that’s out of an even longer tradition going back generations. Our funky minimalist tree was a fixture at a store that was going out of business, our ornaments get reused every year. We make a lot of music together, and inflict it on people who come to visit for the cookies.

15 years ago

Hafta say…last year I made my pies and other pumkin goodies from home grown pumpkins and they were fantabulous. Close to christmans though my Mom had asked me to make another for the holiday, but I had run out of pumpkins so I went to the grocery store to buy a pie pumpkin, thinking that surely they had not sold ALL of them in a month. There was a few huge boxes of them nearly 3 weeks earlier and frankly I live in a not terribly population dense area so come on how many pumkins could they have possibly sold right? I looked and looked all over the place and then asked the grocery manager where they moved the pie pumpkins to and he said “haloween’s over honey” and laughed as he walked away.

This year I planted more pumpkin plants – alas, it was a sucky pumpkin year (too rainy) and I only have 3 little pumpkins to show for my troubles. Anyway, I told my Mom that she needs to get a whole mess of them when she goes apple picking with my 2 year old this weekend, and I’m canvasing my area as well. Hopefully we can have real pumpkin pie, pumkin muffins, pumpkin scones, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin you name it at least until Valentine’s day.

John Costigane
15 years ago

Hi Beth,

A Zero Waste Christmas is my aim this year. Home cooking and baking only (except for Zero Waste Black Forest Gateau and Raspberry Pavlova which I may have to buy in).

15 years ago

I’m conflicted – I realize that the stuff is not what I love about the holidays. And for myself it’s fine to limit the spending and the focus on things. It’s the people you know less well — or see less — where gestures of goodwill are perhaps more tricky to navigate. People love to connect with and celebrate one another — and this is something I don’t want to limit. I feel that a homemade or handmade item is a much better gesture in some cases, and in others, an experience, and, frankly in cases where I don’t know that person very well and it’s a transaction where I am communicating appreciation (postal worker, teacher) I think cash speaks volumes. But in general, I agree with you and a lot of the PPs — cooking seems to capture a lot of the holiday spirit for me (Italian family!). And all of us value a jar of homemade pesto more than some commercial Xmas item. ;) Thanks for pushing the perspective shift instead of just the LED holiday light string.

Lisa Sharp
15 years ago

I so would have gone around and given neighbors fair trade chocolate with a note on it.

As a kid I even went around without my parents knowing it once asking my neighbors (which I knew) if they would donate canned food for our local homeless shelter. So I would have been happy to do something like that.

I don’t know what to do about Christmas. My husband and I love Christmas. We buy decorations we can use over and over so I know that’s better than somethings but I don’t know what to do to be more eco-friendly. Time for research I guess.

15 years ago

Dear Beth,

Funny thing is I've been getting excited planning DIY workshops for the upcoming Christmas season. I get excited because I ADORE the things the workshoppers make. Last year, the leader of our local Church of Craft made black peppermint glycerine soap for all her giftees! Someone else made infused frankincense oil for everyone. A hand made gift is a REAL gift in my books.


So I not only love Christmas – and I'm a Christian, so that helps – but I love the DIY run up to Christmas. I feel like I get to convert people!

BTW, Saint Nicholas delivers ONE unwrapped previously loved item to each of my children at Christmas. My eldest always felt that she had the REAL dibs on Saint Nicholas and that other kids were being duped by the parents. After all, why would a saint brings toys you could buy at a mall?

I would be ecstatic if we could all have a made-from-the-heart Christmas. As it stands, we demand that people only give us coupons for stuff we can do together, or locally made consummables. That way, we get our family's year long supply of jams and honey.

As for Thanksgiving – lucky us. A few years ago we gave up the hassle of having our own dinner and now join our friends in a tiny town up north where virtually everyone in the community gathers to bring in the garden harvests, preserve them and have a giant dinner together. I am in communal ecstacy every time!

I wish everyone the same blessing.

Love & RRRevolution, Tracey

Mindful Momma
15 years ago

I believe people desperatly want to find the joy in the holidays – especially in the middle of their stress-out, overworked lives. Unfortunately we’ve been conditioned to think that it’s the stuff that brings the joy. But as many of the commenters here seem to agree, it’s really the holiday traditions that bring the true joy. We should all try to be more mindful of that this year!

Mother Earth
15 years ago

I think pause at these occasions is truly important, pause and gratitude. Years ago it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think the plastic stuff was junk…now I wish I could undo some of my consumer decisions

15 years ago

I can really relate to your comment about the joy of making the pumpkin soup versus the lack of joy with the generic gift-giving. I think, as an individual (or couple), you have to really think about what brings you joy and focus your rituals and traditions around these things. It’s important to have holidays and to celebrate wonderful things.

For me, baking is one of those things. We made it a tradition to have friends over and make gingerbread cookies from scratch every year. We ONLY make gingerbread cookies at this time, so it is very special. The kids look forward to it and it is part of our Christmas tradition now. (We even use some of them to decorate our tree). That’s just an example. My point is, a celebration doesn’t have to be about excess and consumerism. It can be about activities and traditions. For my husband, Thanksgiving involved watching “The Sound of Music” every year. Halloween traditions may involve going to a farm, picking out a pumpkin, carving that jack-o-lantern and eating fresh-baked pumpkin seeds.

I’m really inspired to rethink decorations and gifts for this year to be plastic-free and less-excessive. But, I will not give up the joy of the celebration.

15 years ago

What I find so interesting is that all the plastic and disposable was supposed to make our lives “easier”. Yes you can have 5 dessert options if only you use canned, processed everything topped with “whipped topping” (truly scary stuff). Even better, buy it all from the grocery. Who cares if it tastes like plastic and corn syrup and will make your booty the size of that hormone filled turkey?

A couple years ago we switched to one food option per category (i.e. mashed, or baked, or sweet potatoes, not all three)and focused on making really good quality rather than lots of quantity. I’m not even a very good cook, but everyone else is so used to eating processed that they think it’s fantastic. And my booty…not the size of the turkey!

We also do a lot of virtual gifts for adults in the fam.

greeen sheeep
15 years ago

My city puts on a community dinner every Thanksgiving. It is free for all and completely served by volunteers. I have been trying for the past two years to get my family to forgo the big over indulgent high stressed fiasco of dinner at the in-laws to instead be servers at the community dinner. What better way to drive home the things we really should be thankful for than serving those who are truly grateful for what little have?

Conscious Shopper
15 years ago

I got the same email from Co-op America, and since I have two kids of trick-or-treating age, I’m thinking of trying it this year. I’ve never been big on trick-or-treating anyway (knocking on doors of neighbors I barely know to ask them to give my kids candy I’m not really happy about them eating), so this sounds like a way to turn it into a good teaching experience for my kids.

15 years ago

My extended family and I have stopped the traditional gift-giving between grown ups. Kids under 18 get used (gently loved) presents and some $$ for the college fund. Grownups? We spend our cash on renting a big-ass cabin in the woods for a week and spending quality time together, cooking, playing games and just re-connecting.

I treasure the time together far more than I would some iTunes or jewelry or even chocolate.

Crafty Green Poet
15 years ago

Great post, in the UK our holidays are totally overcommercialised too. I can’t understand competitive gift giving. My parents brought me up to be non-consumerist – its a habit that stayed with me. My partner is just as non-consumerist as i am. My sister married a man who is driven by ostentiatious gift giving and she’s taken that on board though she’s abandoned the husband…

I like to give homemade gifts where i can and also my Mum and I swap second hand books as gifts.