Organic Christmas: wine, gifts, food and markets

An Organic Christmas: a time to reconnect with your primeval soul?

‘‘Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas……..perhaps….means a little bit more.’’

When Doctor Theodor Seuss penned his children’s classic tale ‘How the Grinch stole Christmas’ in 1957 he was, perhaps, gently making us ponder how far this annual festival has strayed from its origins over two millenia.

What is organic Christmas?

Long before 3 wise men discovered a baby in a manger the Norse in Scandinavia were celebrating the Winter Solstice (21 December), a feast to mark the longer days and the return of the sun that only ended when the Yule log had burned out.

At the same time in the milder south the Romans were indulging in a month-long hedonistic drink and food fest honouring Saturn, god of agriculture. Most of us would consider this a trifle excessive but as slaves were swapping places with their masters for this festive period their exuberance is understandable.

Equally understandable was the medieval practice at Christmas of ‘crowning’ a beggar or student ‘lord of misrule,’ a green light allowing them to robustly encourage the upper classes to balance the social scales a little and entertain those less fortunate than them.

All would be utterly bemused by the blizzard of conspicuous consumption you and I enjoy today. Perhaps this year should be a journey of rediscovery for Christmas-past, a search for a simpler, purer festival that our ancestors might recognise as organic Christmas. This journey will be fun, it will be ethical and it will be remarkably simple.

The Christmas Tree

As you struggle to your car with a Norway spruce wrapped in its synthetic sleeve kindly provided by your local garden centre, you can comfort yourself in the knowledge that no Saturnalian feast in Roman times was complete without a branch or two from a fir tree and the Vikings equally sought solace in the fir tree as a sacred symbol of life during the long, bleak winter days.

As you lie horizontal on the carpet under the Christmas tree, desperate to prevent your tree looking like the leaning tower of Pisa, wouldn’t you love to have a word with that great church reformer Martin Luther? Wouldn’t you be itching to ask him what he was thinking of that night in 1536 when, walking in the woods, he was struck by the beauty of the stars twinkling overhead and wanted to recreate that for his children?

You, like many of us, would like to point out to the great man that when he decorated that one tree for his children he unleashed a phenomena that today has multiplied into more than 6 million fir or spruce trees appearing in people’s houses across Britain alone. Luther’s candles and real silver decorations have been replaced with electric lights and the decorations now originate from China but old Martin would surely recognize his handiwork.

The demand for ‘his creation’ is now largely satisfied through intensive forestry that relies on a cocktail of pesticides closely linked to health issues including cancer, hormone disruption and asthma.

Your health certainly won’t improve by opting for one of the artificial trees now available, a toxic mix of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and lead that is often used to stabilize PVC products.

The Christmas tree is here to stay but you can remain true to your Organic principles by furnishing your home this year with a tree that has been nurtured without chemical assistance. Ask the Soil Association or Green Promise for a list of approved suppliers.

The simplest is often the best. See if you can find a local plantation, avoiding the easy route to your garden centre, supermarket or even pub: buy a tree with roots, plant it in a bucket, complete with drainage holes and a drip tray; you now have a tree that can be recycled every year; containing the tree like this also restricts its growth.

Google Trees for rent and lo and behold you can even hire a Christmas tree, complete with roots. It is certainly not the most cost-effective option but the supplier saves you all the hassle of delivery and collection.

On the Twelfth day of Christmas, as the lights, cards and decorations come down, don’t simply dump the tree but take it to a council recyling centre for composting and wood chipping. This creates fresh biomass that will then replenish the depleted soil with much-needed nutrients.

Nature’s bounty and the Christmas cracker

Most of us have the obligatory box of Christmas decorations buried somewhere in the garage that are about to get their annual airing. Use them, of course, but this Christmas think more organically.

Don the Wellington boots, wrap up against the elements and grab a pair of secateurs. It is time to reconnect with Christmas past. All the materials and colours you need for a natural, organic Christmas are right out there in the woods and hedgerows: Holly and Yew, Willow and Hazel, Walnut and Fir cone.

For those of you living deep in the metropolis this can be challenging: you want to embrace what mother nature has to offer but are stumped by how to go about it. The suppliers out there in the countryside understand your dilemna. They now come to you at farmers markets and craft fairs, from Streatham in London to Queens Park Farmers Market in Glasgow.

You, like many of us, may plead lack of time or a complete absence of the creative gene in your body. That’s precisely why at this time of year a raft of glossy magazines will unlock a Pandora’s box of creative ideas on how you can fill every weekend in December, making your own decorations using pine cones, a sprig of holly with berries and some pliant willow.

You will look at nature’s bounty in your fruit bowl with fresh eyes: before you know it you will be creating fruit stars out of Cox’s apples and rose petals out of the peel of a Seville orange.

You will be amazed at what is lying around your house that you can recycle. Dig out those A4 wallpaper samples that have sat gathering dust for years; liberate those cardboard loo roll centres from the box in your garage; on a cold December afternoon make your own home made sweets; you now have all the ingredients to make your own crackers, echoing the beautiful simplicity of Tom Smith’s original 1841 creations.

This has got to be more fun, certainly more ethical, than traipsing with the family round the department stores.

The art of giving

There ain’t no Sanity Claus,’ Chico Marx retorts in a wonderful quickfire exchange to his brother Groucho. Staying sane and retaining a sense of humour at this time of year is crucial.

Are you going to spoil the party by telling the kids that, as history.com puts it, “the rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys“ working out of a workshop in the North Pole, complete with “elves, and his wife, Mrs Claus” is merely the creation of the American political cartoonist, Thomas Nast in 1881?

The Christmas stocking (no-one seriously expects a sack) is here to stay, so roll up your sleeves, exercise the creative and have some fun. Start by making your own Christmas stockings out of old rugby socks or any fabric scraps that come to hand.

organic food at farmer's markets and organic online shoppingScour the farmers markets and craft fairs for an eclectic mix of organic and recycled gifts that makes the stocking the perfect opener on Christmas Day: a bar of organic soap and some bath salts always go down well; something edible such as dried fruit is admirably healthy; no-one is going to begrudge a small jar of homemade sweets; slip in a bar of good quality dark chocolate (at least 60% cocoa content), your conscience clear in the knowledge that this is a good source of iron, magnesium and zinc; a packet of organic tea or coffee will easily squeeze down the side.

Breakfast is over, everyone is seated in the sitting room and there is a general air of expectancy. Your darling boyfriend is not Ebenezer Scrooge so he can suppress the desire to cry “bah humbug” and heed the scientific advice that giving releases in the brain the feel good chemical dopamine and unlocks the ‘cuddle’ hormone!

You won’t see his marriage proposal coming until you prise open the walnut casing to reveal the ring glinting in its silk-lined nest within. You will be stunned if he tells you he made it himself at one of the numerous jewelry courses you can find online.

In a year or two your new baby will be chewing happily on the wooden toy made from sustainable wood that you found through one of the many online suppliers. Keeping one beady eye on junior you will already be savouring the prospect of making artisan bread at one of the many organic cookery schools, an astute choice of gift from your dearly beloved.

He may be scrutinising the twin pack of biodynamic wines that you triumphantly bagged at The Cheese & Wine Festival held at Old Spitalfields market in early November or perhaps he is already getting his tastebuds round part of the gift set you came home with from the Liverpool Organic Brewery Tour way back in January.

There will be grunts of satisfaction across the room as your father-in-law, relieved he has not been palmed off with yet more socks, scans the instructions on how to install his Ladybird Barn and Beehive gift set.

Your mother, meanwhile, is pleasantly surprised to discover she has not received yet another silk scarf or herbal bath salts from the ubiquitous department store down the road. Instead she is intrigued to open the unassuming envelope and find a dinner voucher for two at her local organic restaurant.

Christmas on a plate: how to make it organic?

As you settle down to enjoy your traditional Christmas dinner spare a thought for the Tudor labourer of 1560 who, as food historian Ivan Day explains in ‘The evolution of the country Christmas Dinner,’ www.countryfile.com “might treat himself to a white Christmas loaf as a brief respite from his usual coarse wheaten bread.”

Contrast that with the upper classes a century later indulging in a blowout feast of cygnet pie, six larded eels and a brace of partridge followed by plum pudding and highly spiced mince pies, washed down with copious quantities of Royal punch.

The social playing field has levelled considerably since then and most of us sit down at the Christmas table to a classic spread of turkey with all the trimmings followed by Christmas pudding and mince pies.

Our appetites are fed by seemingly limitless choice, much of it available at the click of a mouse. As The Soil Association (www.soilassociation.org) notes, we have become disconnected from “ what goes on our plates” and this has “far-reaching consequences for our health, the health of the countryside, and the development of countries across the world.”

No-one in the Organic movement wants to cancel Christmas, as Oliver Cromwell successfully did in 1645. They merely want to reconnect us with the land, eating healthily whilst at the same time having fun.

Turkey is very healthy: its white meat is rich in protein and low in fat whilst the red meat is high in iron; there is also an abundance of Vitamin B that helps the body convert food into energy. However, as The Soil Association points out, of the 10 million turkeys sold in Britain annually, a whopping 90% are reared intensively in windowless, crowded and barren sheds.

So this Christmas sit down with the family to an organic turkey from one of the producers on the Association’s approved list. You will all be tucking into a bird that has at least seen the open air, foraging on grasses with a cereal-based diet and your tastebuds will notice the difference.

Alternatively, why not branch out and challenge your husband’s traditional tastes with some smoked salmon. There are dozens of suppliers, from Cork to Shetland, that can help. Think of all that heart-friendly Omega 3 and Vitamin D so vital for the immune system and strong bones.

You dad can still enjoy those brussel sprouts rich in fibre, calcium amd magnesium, just as he can tuck into the vitamin C-rich potatoes and the carrots with an abundance of vitamin A. You can dish a dollop of cranberry sauce onto your plate knowing that it protects the capillaries and reduces visible signs of ageing!

Even the Christmas pudding passes the health test: the dried fruit are rich in fibre, vitamin B, potassium and folic acid; the potassium-rich raisins help to reduce blood pressure and the cinnamon you liberally added will assist granny’s rheumatism and digestion.

This year, instead of taking the convenient route to the supermarket, sign up to your local Community Supported Agriculture scheme (CSA) and buy the whole lot directly from your local farmer. He gets a fairer, guaranteed income and you go home with vegetables that really taste of something and are not loaded with pesticides.

Alternatively, venture out one Saturday morning and track down your organic suppliers at the nearest farmer’s market. You might even be able to do a clean sweep of the organic booze requirements for Christmas Day.

On Christmas Day, plonk dad in a comfy chair with a fruity pale ale; pep up the Christmas lunch preparations with some organic vintage cider sourced on a ‘sortie’ down to Devon; your dearly beloved can earn his organic stripes at lunch by pouring everyone a glass of red or white, mercifully low on sulphur, bought from one of the many Organic online wine directories..

As you all slump in front of a flickering and crackling log fire with a glass of port, reconnecting with your primeval soul, who cares about the rain drumming on the window pane.

Organic Christmas recommendations: wine, food, gifts

Organic Christmas: wine, gifts, food and marketsAbel and Cole, Waitrose and Ocado are all good sources where to shop for organic produce, be it vegetables, turkey, goose, other game, beef and poultry. Nothing beats Borough market and other farmer’s markets, but it is a bit of a gamble to wait until the very last moment to buy this important Christmas table supply. You can pre-order bulky stuff and your massive turkey and feel sorted and sane with organic online shopping.
When it comes to wine, Waitrose Cellar has a good selection, but for the real discount go for Perfect Cellar – they will give you either £12 off or a whopping £50 off if you sign up for their wine club.

You can also go and treat yourself (or your friends and family) to a wine club subscription. See our review on the best wine clubs here. They will provide with a lot of perks, specialist knowledge and of course a good discount.
If you are still puzzled what to buy for a real wine lover check out our Wine Gifts ideas and suggestions.
Cheers!

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