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15 things not to buy for the holidays

A great big list of things you don't need or that you can make instead of buying.

Every year, astonished by the avalanche of stuff crowding the stores, I look for things that I don't need to buy for December. I have found that by not spending money on all the superfluous stuff, I have more to spend on higher quality gifts for my friends and family; things that are made ethically and that will last longer. And when supplemented with a homemade gift as well, it's really the best of all worlds. Here's a start on the things I don't buy.

1. Cookie tins

Metal cookie tins are cute and yes, they are reusable, so they're not the worst thing in the world. But there are so many other options that are free and may be more practical for re-use than a metal box with Santa on it. Most of us sustainably minded folks have a stash of jars – they make great cookie containers, as you can see in the photo above. You can also repurpose old gift boxes or make little craft paper pouches from old paper shopping bags, then decorate with ribbon and a sprig of evergreen.

2. Gift tags

Gift tags© Melissa Breyer

Do people still buy gift tags? They must because I see them for sale in the stores. There are so many other options other than new store-bought tags. Write on the paper itself, cut out initials from scrap paper or old greeting cards, write the name in yarn, use rubber stamps, cut out a tag from scrap paper, color code gift wrap per person … the options are endless.

3. Holiday cards

While I love the care and experience of giving and receiving holiday cards, the fact that we spend $7 billion dollars a year on greeting cards in the United States makes me wonder about all that single-use paper flooding the waste stream. If this bothers you as well, think of alternatives: Send a photo with a note on back, make new cards by cutting up and reassembling old ones, use old wrapping paper or scraps (like above), write emails and include photos … there are all kinds of things you can do that are not buying into the Greeting Card Industrial Complex.

4. Stockings

Even the most craft-challenged amongst us can cut out two stocking shapes from old fabric, stitch them together, and embellish. The one above doesn't even require sewing! This one is a bit more complicated, but uses old blankets which is a nice touch.

5. Wrapping paper

I am always shocked by how much new wrapping paper costs – and by how wasteful it seems. According to Stanford University, if every American family wrapped three presents in reused materials, the saved paper would cover 45,000 football fields. Become a fan of recycling old wrapping paper, and/or easily make your own – it's really fun, unique, and easy. A wealth of ideas here: 10 stylish and sustainable ways to wrap gifts.

6. Garland / Bunting

No need to splurge on garlands or festive bunting when you have tree trimmings and some string. You can snip some greens from trees in your garden, ask your tree seller for extras, or use some from your own Christmas tree. For a tutorial on how to make the one pictured above, visit the ever-lovely A Pair and A Spare.

7. Advent calendar

An Internet search for “DIY advent calendar” may be all that's needed to convince anyone to make their own advent calendar. There are so many creative ideas, like the one above using matchboxes. A few years ago, my then-11-year-old daughter gathered up all the wrecked pants from her childhood (which we saved because you never know…) removed the pockets and stitched 25 of them on a piece of metallic-tinged linen for the cutest advent calendar ever. All you need is 25 receptacles and voila.

8. Flower arrangements

No need to buy special holiday flowers! Raid your garden for pretty branches and sprigs, even if it means bare branches that you can decorate for a wintry theme. My winter garden usually has the last of the rosemary and sage that can be added in, as well as dried curly grape vines and evergreen branches. If you have nothing to work with, Christmas tree sellers often have loads of scraps they're willing to give away. Add ornaments and fruit and whatever else comes to mind.

9. Holiday dinnerware

Why go out and buy Santa plates when you can use plain plates topped with a holiday flourish?

10. Tree ornaments

The great tree ornament mystery goes like this: Who is buying the zillions of tree ornaments that fill the stores' shelves every holiday season? Don't people use the same ornaments year after year? Even accounting for people who have lost their ornaments or people starting new homes, it seems like there is an awful lot of ornaments for sale. Maybe people just want a new look? If that's the case, they could try one of these: How to decorate your Christmas tree with found objects.

11. Hostess gifts

Your host or hostess probably doesn't need you to buy them fresh flowers or a bottle of wine – but they would perhaps love to receive something homemade from your kitchen. Inspiration here: 5 last-minute hostess gifts from your pantry

12. Wreaths

wreath© Melissa Breyer

Have a wreath-making day with friends. Everyone can bring a big batch of treasures – branches, leaves, herbs, flowers, pinecones, seedpods, rose hips, seashells, ribbons, ornaments, etc – and guests can mix and match to make their own wreaths. I made the mini wreath above to decorate a magnum of bubbles going to a party at a chef's house, using recycled wire, last year's ribbon, and herbs from the greenmarket. A Pair and a Spare has a tutorial on how to make the minimalist wreaths pictured above, but you could go over-the-top as well. For the base, you can make forms out of wire or branches.

13. Scented candles

I know that scented candles are all the rage, but too many of them should actually be inciting rage given the synthetic fragrance they're polluting homes with. Instead, opt for DIY all-natural ways to scent your home: Put a mug of water with cinnamon sticks on a radiator, make clove and orange pomanders, have lots of fresh evergreen or eucalyptus branches in vases, use fresh herbs like rosemary in centerpieces and arrangements, or even make your own non-toxic essential oil diffuser.

14. Party hats

I'm not sure that people wear party hats during the holidays, but why don't we?? Or at least, why don't we wear flower crowns like these? Forage for whatever winter greens you have on hand and get crafting.

15. Fancy table linens

As much as I love formal table cloths, I always ruin them … which is why I think that it's better not to keep buying new ones. Now I've taken a more rustic approach and mix and match formal serving pieces with linens that are a bit more rough and tumble. I love the burlap woven table covering in the photo above. Any humble fabric can be used, just make sure to add in some elegant things and a lot of greenery to tie it all together.

I'm always looking for new ideas – what holiday items do you eschew or make yourself? Let us know in the comments.

Updated: December 10, 2019

A great big list of things you don't need or that you can make instead of buying.