My Green Christmas: Penny Wincer, photographer

Penny Wincer

Christmas can be magical and exciting for young kids, but the environmental impact isn’t so good. Photographer Penny Wincer favours a green Christmas – and her traditions sound just lovely…

“I absolutely love celebrating Christmas but so much of it is mindless. Mindless consumption of stuff for the sake of it. My aim is to have an intentional Christmas. That doesn’t mean not buying gifts, it just means thinking carefully about where they come from and if they’ll be really loved and useful. Not everything will be second hand but the things that are not will mostly come from small ethical retailers and will be things that are genuinely wanted and needed.

I’ve always tried to be fairly careful about what I bring into our house. We live in a small London terrace and I’m a bit of a minimalist at heart. My son doesn’t do well with lots of toys (actually I don’t think many kids do!), so we have never had lots of them. Last year I started focusing on getting more second hand. My son got a climbing frame for the garden that I found on eBay and had a friend help me put together.

Arthur will be eight by Christmas and Agnes almost six. Arthur is autistic and one of the most un-materialistic people you’ll ever meet. He doesn’t particularly like getting lots of gifts to unwrap, as he finds it overwhelming but he does like to have some. Last year he opened a slinky then didn’t open another present for about an hour! He doesn’t care if things are new or second hand. The trouble has been finding things that he enjoys and engages with. He doesn’t really play with most toys. Over the years I’ve bought things in the hope he’ll play with them and he hasn’t. It can be really frustrating to find anything he engages with at all.

Christmas doesn’t have to look a certain way. It’s ok to opt out of the norm if it doesn’t feel important to you

Agnes is at an age where she has very strong opinions about what she wants. She has asked for some Paw Patrol toys and we talked about how plastic is around forever once it’s been made and the importance of not always buying new. She is totally fine with getting them second hand. I have compromised and agreed that it was ok to ask Father Christmas for a new set of lego, so that all the pieces are in the box!

I get a bit sad when I see people doing massive toy clear outs before Christmas so that they can make room for “new toys”. Getting rid of things that are no longer age appropriate always feels good though, so some kind of huge toy swap would be much better.

Luckily, my kids extended family tend to give money, so I don’t really have to battle the grandparents inundating us with gifts. This is put towards activities and clothes they need. Friends are usually really good about asking what I would recommend, especially as Arthur is difficult to buy for. It feels pretty awful when Arthur is given something for a typical kid his age but it’s completely inappropriate for him. It’s both a waste and a reminder of his disability. It used to happen often when he was younger. Now the few people who buy him gifts always ask me first. Agnes is always happy to receive books, so that’s usually what I recommend.

Ebay and Gumtree are fantastic. You need to start early with Ebay of course, incase you miss out on what you want and need to bid on something else. But don’t forget Gumtree and local selling pages on Facebook. Lots of people will be clearing out in the lead up to Christmas. There are lots of great pages for clothing too, excellent for party dresses and good quality pjs. My two always receive pyjamas on Christmas Eve and I already have some gorgeous ones that I picked up on Ebay. For the price of a cheap set from a chain store with dubious ethics and poor quality, you can get a gorgeous, well-made pair that will really last. Also, chat with fellow local parents about what they’re getting rid of. There might be a large tub of Duplo or a scooter that needs a new home.

As I mentioned earlier, not all of my kids gifts will be second hand. I am buying a few things from small ethical retailers too. Arthur, the child who doesn’t do toys, is getting a Wobbel board from Babi Pur. It encourages lots of indoor movement (which is much more up his street then a toy) and they’re ethically produced in the Netherlands. Babi Pur is a family run ethical retailer based in Wales that I’ve been buying from since my children were in cloth nappies. I completely trust that they have done all their research and only sell brands with very high ethical standards. The kids will also be getting stainless steel drink bottles for their stockings from there.

There are lots of really ethical ways to shop for Christmas if you can’t find what you need second hand. Buying from local shops is a great way to support your community and there are so many ways now to buy direct from crafters, makers and illustrators on platforms like Etsy and Instagram. Experiences also make great green gift options. There are so many to choose from these days. Zoo memberships, museum passes, trampolining, climbing, theatre tickets, vouchers for travel. The list is endless! And no packaging in your bin, or unplayed with toy cluttering up the house.

Making it a Green Christmas

A while ago I switched to using brown paper for wrapping gifts in. I collect and keep ribbons that come into the house and reuse them and I also use twine. It looks beautiful and the brown paper can be composted so doesn’t even have to go into the recycling bin! If your children aren’t too fussed about wrapping paper, using fabric to wrap gifts is even better, as you can just use it over and over. One of the reasons the Christmas stocking is so great, is the fact it’s reused year after year.

We use the same decorations each year too, although I do add a new decoration each for the kids into their advent calender. The advent calender I make is mostly sweets (unwrapped) with little extra notes in some days saying things like “today we are choosing our Christmas tree” and “shopping for food for the food bank”. It’s a nice mix of lovely things for the kids and ways for the kids to share what they have with others too. Advent is a wonderful ritual which seems to particular help Arthur in the build up to the festive season.

In past years, I’ve had a bit of a dilemma about the Christmas tree. We always have a real one. On the one hand it seems wasteful to cut a tree each year. On the other hand, it’s just magical to have a fresh, scented tree in the house each year for a few weeks. It brings us so much joy and I hate the idea of buying a plastic version.

But this year, I’ve found a company called The Christmas Forest. They are committed to providing more sustainable Christmas trees. They have Christmas tree lots all over London and they also sell online (for home delivery). They source the trees from as near by as possible to reduce “tree miles”, replace every tree with a new one and harvest on a nine-year cycle (better for local wildlife using the trees as habitat).

According to their website, you would need to keep an artificial tree for at least 10 years to make up for the carbon footprint it creates, in comparison to buying a responsibly sourced tree each year. They also donate to Tree Aid, an organisation that teaches people the skills to set up their own businesses growing and selling tree products, such as nuts fruit and shea butter. So for every tree sold, another is given to a family in Africa.

Buying presents for teachers

I have a lot of teachers and teaching assistants to buy for each year. At my son’s special school, there are five adults looking after his class and they work tirelessly hard. It’s really important to me that we say thank you for all their hard work. I usually stick to consumables like wine and chocolates but occasionally I give house plants too.

My dream second hand present…

A Polaroid Land camera. I had one years ago but it broke and I would love to have our family pictures on polaroid.

Our Christmas Day…

We will be here in London. My family are all in Australia and so it will just be myself, the kids and my boyfriend on Christmas day. My boyfriend is Jewish and didn’t celebrate Christmas growing up, so he’s as excited as the kids are! As much as I miss my family at Christmas, it is quite fun to have our own rituals and do things are own way. I generally spend far too much money on delicious food and drinks from our local farmers market.

A few days before hand we always throw a party for friends in the neighbourhood, which last year involved cooking a huge ham which went down a treat. On Christmas Day we have a roast dinner with all the trimmings and go for a brisk walk followed by Christmas films. So different to the Australian Christmases I had as a child, which usually involved jumping in the pool and playing cricket in the backyard. I have adopted one tradition from my childhood though – no one gets to peek inside the living room on Christmas morning until Mummy has a coffee in her hand!

Christmas doesn’t have to look a certain way. It’s ok to opt out of the norm if it doesn’t feel important to you. My kids pile of gifts will probably look a lot smaller than many of their friends and that’s ok by me because I know I’m choosing things they’ll use and love. There have been times when I have worried about the impact celebrating Christmas has on the planet and whether or not it’s completely extravagant to celebrate at all. But to be human is to have rituals and traditions and there is something so wonderful about a deep winter festival that brings family and friends together with music, delicious food and some gifts under an indoor tree.

I think it’s worth it, as long as we’re conscious of the impact we’re having and take a few steps to minimise the waste we produce. It’s also really important to discuss it with our kids, so they understand why it’s unnecessary and careless for us to always buy things new, when there is so much out there already in existence.”