The story of Santa Claus, his elves and the giving of gifts has graced our lives for hundreds of years. It is more than just the story of a jolly old man on a quest to give gifts to every child in the world. It's a lesson about generosity and kindness.
Every time I think of the holiday season, it conjures up happy childhood memories. I remember being fascinated by the magical mystery of Santa and often wondered what he did during the summer. Did he take vacations? Did he play golf? Did he go shopping to reduce the elves' workload?
This summer, I actually found out what he did when I attended the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa (how appropriate!), California. A celebration of pure food and sustainable living, the expo is one of the world's largest annual heritage food events. Thousands of people come from around the world to celebrate traditional crops, foods, seeds, poultry and livestock. I was lucky enough to be invited back for a second year to speak at the event. While at the meet and greet press gathering, I spotted good old Saint Nick and just had to speak with him.
We spoke for some time, exchanging stories about our own personal journeys. I told him that I was working hard speaking with children and creating awareness around a major public concern regarding the presence of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in food. I explained that GM crops are not the promised solution to world hunger, as the industry is fond of telling everyone, but rather a business strategy to sell more agrochemicals and patented seeds for profit.
St Nick, or as he'd preferred to be called, "Sustainable Santa" , was also eager to share with me his concerns about the harmful food choices children and their parents often make. Rather than them opting for things like sugary sodas and candies that now dominate the kid's food market, his goal is to help kids eat more nutritious meals and become healthier and fitter. And Sustainable Santa apparently practices what he preaches: he told me he had lost over 80 pounds by eating a healthy diet and getting more exercise.
"He's out of date," says Sustainable Santa, referring to the traditional Santa. "We're anxious to have Santa be the counselor who urges kids to eat healthy and live a sustainable lifestyle." He added that he wished unscrupulous marketers would stop using Santa and his elves as a jolly purveyor of sugary sodas and sugar-coated processed foods. In fact, the modern version of Santa, with the red suit, black belt and boots, rosy cheeks, luminous eyes and brighter-than-white teeth, is the product of a Coca-Cola advertising campaign dating back to the 1930s.
Modern Sustainable Santa wants to get America's kids off fast foods and sugary treats and into eating nutritious whole foods. There's no doubt that North America's unhealthy diet of junk food and GMO-laden processed foods has led to a dramatic increase in childhood obesity and preventable metabolic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease in children, which now affect half the young population. That's something that we didn't experience 25 years ago. This is due to ruthless companies that sell unhealthy products targeting kids.
It's as if sugar is the new tobacco, with the same "get them hooked early" ethos. In many cases, sugar is a major part of a company's bottom line, and the food industry has resisted any moves towards producing food with less sugar by subverting regulatory processes. The public is paying a massive health-related price.
Now I now know what Sustainable Santa does when he's not busy working at the North Pole. He travels to farmers' markets, seed shows and concerts in a Santa suit (usually with red tennis shoes) speaking to children and presenting a fit, contemporary contrast to the image of the jolly fat old man conjured up in the poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas." When visiting these venues, in addition to having his picture taken with the children, he hands out cards with three healthy guidelines for them and their parents to consider.
Rule #1: If you're hungry, eat an apple. If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you are probably not truly hungry - the thought of eating will pass.
Rule #2: Treat Treats as Treats. There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods. And a cookie on Christmas Eve or cake on your birthday is surely a very special occasion food treat.
Rule #3: Follow the "S" Rule. No Sodas, no between-meal Snacks, no Second helpings, no added Sugar or Salt and no Sweets... except on days that begin with the letter "S".
The power of his message became clear to me when we talked about the positive effect that just a few words from Santa can have on a child (something which purveyors of junk food know all to well). If Sustainable Santa tells them to "make healthier food choices," they're more likely to trust the message and follow his three guidelines.
It seems to me that Sustainable Santa is well on his way to transforming the eating habits of North American children. His efforts have even drawn the support of the University of California Medical School in San Francisco.
The truth is Santa is still Santa, but the wonderful Sustainable Santa that I met at the Heirloom Expo clearly cares about children's health. He's inspired me to look for sustainable, organic, non-GMO and, of course, tasty, fair trade treats for stocking fillers for those I love this Christmas.
Having the opportunity to spend time with Sustainable Santa and knowing that he's promoting a non-sugar-coated culture shift that's essential for the future of a sustainable and healthier society is the best gift I could ask for this Christmas. As Sustainable Santa always says, "Let's give the children the best gift of all... good health."
Have a Happy and Healthy Holiday Season.
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This may seem obvious to some, but many people don't recognize the sustainable impact cooking has on your holiday. The more foods you make yourself, the more consideration you are putting into what goes on your plate, in your mouth and the values your share with your family.
If a lights display is integral to your holidays, opt for a more sustainable option than regular incandescent bulbs. LED Christmas lights are readily available, and they will save a significant amount of time and money over the years.
Cooking does not only mean carving a turkey and mashing your own potatoes. Go the extra step this holiday by replacing items you would normally buy ready-made, like cranberry sauce, gravy and pie crusts, with homemade (and often more delicious) versions.
Dinner wine and winter lager may not seem environmentally unsound, but the way your alcohol is distilled can have serious affects on the environment around you. Opt for biodynamic or organic wines and local, small-scale organic brews.
Stocking stuffers are rarely anyone's favorite part of holiday gift giving: they tend to be small, plastic trinkets that end up in the garbage by the end of December. As an alternative, fill up the fireplace stockings with dried fruits and nuts.
Although seemingly innocuous, many holiday candles are made out of paraffin wax, a petroleum product. For a more sustainable way to set the festive mood, buy soy or natural beeswax candles.
Take a step beyond eating seasonal foods for your holiday meal. Instead of just focusing on December fruits, like apples, lemons and oranges, for the holidays, buy them in bulk to make marmalades, preserves and jams for use in the warmer months.
According to the EPA, 33 million Christmas trees are sold every year. Many of those trees simply end up in landfills instead of being used or recycled. If a living tree is integral to your holiday traditions, consider adopting or buying a plantable Christmas tree. Choose a species indigenous to your area, so it can live in your garden year-round.
Even if sustainable food is on your mind when grocery shopping, spices can often be overlooked. Unfortunately, a number of environmental concerns plague the spice industry, such as pesticide use, water waste, loss of biodiversity and fair-trade struggles. Check out the Sustainable Spices Initiative to find out the best types of seasonings and brands to buy for your meal.
Instead of cooking only for your big holiday meal, double or even triple each dish. Either you will have done your cooking for a number of upcoming meals, or you will have enough food to donate to a shelter, ensuring that others are receiving home cooked meals as well. In fact, try freezing the leftover dishes. By waiting until after the holidays to give away food, you are giving to shelters and food pantries that are no longer overridden with holiday charity and are once again desperately in need of donations.
Although arguments can be made both for and against serving meat at your holiday feast, not all types of meat have the same effects on the environment. A 2011 EWG study shows that lamb, beef, pork and cheese have the largest carbon emissions per kilogram of food. However, locally sourced, free-range meats can considerably cut down on these numbers. Research your choice of meat before buying, and keep carbon impact in mind while making a decision.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, Americans create about 1 million extra tons of household waste. A significant portion of that is from gift wrap, which creates about 4 million tons of waste annually in the U.S. In order to cut down on unnecessary paper and drive home the idea of packaging with purpose, either gift it bare or wrap presents in scarves, cloths and other reusable or wearable items.
Henry Owen:Don’t worry, this game is way more fun than it sounds. Most households pay some of their highest electric and heating bills in December. Many factors play into these higher bills: Christmas lighting, visiting family (anyone ever had motorhome guests plug in to their grid?), colder weather, etc. The family energy audit game is designed as a fun way to incentivise your family to save money (actually often earn money) and save energy which helps the environment. As a parent, do you hate reminding your kids to turn off lights? Does it drive you crazy when they leave the refrigerator door open as they pour the orange juice? This game will turn your kids (even teenagers) into energy conservationists and requires no nagging, reminding or guilt tripping from you. Here is how you play: Sometime around Thanksgiving look up your electric bill and heating bill from December of last year. These numbers are your base line. Explain to your kids that as the parent you are committed to paying this base line again this December. If through energy conservation techniques, the bill is lower this December, then they get to split the savings. You will pay the bill but the difference between this year’s bill (when they were trying) and last year’s bill (when you were nagging), they get to split and keep. Soon, your kids will be reminding each other to turn off lights and teaching you about vampire power (plugged in appliances that are turned off still draw small amounts of electricity). In the above example, I described using the month of December and your electricity/heating bills but clearly you could play this great game year round with any of your household bills. Don’t be surprised if your kids start nagging you to turn off lights, get excited when the energy bills come, and demand to play this game year round. An optional twist: add some teeth to the game. You pay your kids if the bill is lower, they pay you if it is higher than the base line. For more read How to Have a Green Christmas http://amzn.to/1dsnKS5
Henry Owen:You can put your dead Christmas tree to productive use by easily turning it into compost, mulch, or a wildlife habitat. If you have a chipper/shredder at home, gently feed individual branches of your tree into your chipper to produce a nice pine tree mulch that can be used in your vegetable or flower garden. Or, add this mulch to your compost pile and mix in some vegetable food scraps to produce dark rich compost that can be added to your garden soil. No chipper/shredder at home? No worries, most cities have commercial composting facilities that will come pick up your tree (and all you neighbors’ trees) and take them away for mulching and composting. You can also turn your spent Christmas tree into a habitat for birds, squirrels, and chipmunks in your backyard. Simply toss your tree on your brush pile or in a seldom used corner of the backyard. The branches will help the tree keep its shape creating an ideal home for birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. Read more, How to Have a Green Christmas http://amzn.to/1dsnKS5
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