Most people want to celebrate the holidays in traditional fashion and have fun doing so. But some of the festivities have a negative impact on the environment. There are environmentally compatible alternatives, though.
Keeping it simple is actually easier on the environment
Back when there were no cars and no electricity, people celebrated Christmas like in the song "Jingle Bells": dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, over the fields they went, laughing all the way.
Nowadays, the holidays mean -- in Germany at least -- that nearly 24 million Christmas trees are put up in living rooms. These are real trees, not plastic ones. They are grown only for Christmas and don't come from the forest anymore, said Helge May from the environmental organization Nabu in Bonn.
"Instead, they're cultivated like corn or potatoes on plantations," May said. "The tree farmers use a lot of poison to keep weeds away from the roots and a great deal of fertilizer to make the trees grow evenly and look pretty."
Getting trees the old-fashioned way
Eighty percent of German Christmas trees are grown domestically. The rest are imported from surrounding European countries. This means that besides the use of chemicals for cultivation, long transportation routes for these trees increase gas consumption and pollution.
May suggests getting trees the old-fashioned way: buying them from organic farms or picking one up from a state forest. Rangers usually cut down smaller pines or firs from between the bigger ones and sell them.
It's a kind of "weeding out" process, May said. This made use of trees that were cut down anyway and not unnaturally fertilized.
Better to get the "real thing"
But even buying a tree from a normal plantation is better than getting a plastic one, May said. Real trees, at least, are part of an organic cycle.
"It's easier to keep living trees in the ecosystem," said May. Many cities offer a special pick-up service for Christmas trees, which are then taken to a compost processing plant.
"So, after a few months, the tree has turned into a kind of soil or compost that can be used in the garden as fertilizer," May said.
This tree will probably just land in the trash
But many trees aren't really composted, said Wilfried Berf from Cologne's municipal refuse disposal contractor AWB.
"When we pick up the trees next to the garbage cans at people's homes or apartment buildings, they go right into the normal trash and are incinerated," he said. "We can't set up a separate pick-up system for Christmas trees. That wouldn't make sense ecologically or economically, since we'd have to send out double the number of trucks."
After all, a city like Cologne had to collect around 300,000 Christmas trees, he said.
For those consumers who really want to be sure their tree is recycled, they can take it to a collection station themselves. There, they're ensured it will be composted and not thrown in the trash.
Environmentally friendly gift wrap
Back in the olden days, there was also no plastic and little packaging. Today, though, Christmas usually includes lots of presents -- and that means wrapping paper and packaging galore.
Christmas gifts don't have to be wrapped in glossy paper
To cut down on trash, May said presents could be wrapped the environmentally friendly way.
"Rather than using paper that's hard to recycle, you can wrap gifts in silk scarves, for instance, and it's like two gifts in one," he said.
Recyclable paper is also no longer gray or brown anymore.
"You can now get recycled gift paper in bright colors," May said.
Christmas trees don't have to eat up energy
Decorations don't need to harm the environment, either. Christmas trees can be trimmed with natural, tasty products like cookies, nuts, and candy. Silk bows are also a nice touch.
Some Germans still adorn their trees with candles rather than lights. That means keeping an eye on the tree, but it does conserve energy.
After all, Christmas lights suck up power. A 10-meter (11-yard) long string of lights burning continuously from December through January uses the same amount of energy as a refrigerator for a whole year.
Christmas lights aren't off-limits, though. But fewer strings might have a more lasting and prettier effect.