The plain truth is that Americans love to consume, and we do it with more abandon than ever during the holiday season. Nearly a quarter of all retail goods move out of stores and into homes between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and, we suspect, often into landfills by January).

That poses a dilemma for the thoughtful and socially responsible holiday shopper. What if one of those “four calling birds” is an endangered species? What if the precious metal in the “five golden rings” was mined in an environmentally insensitive manner? What on earth to do about all the noise pollution from those “12 drummers drumming”?

And, most of all, how do you stay in the holiday spirit while still being kind to our planet? Grist‘s Glenn Scherer interviews The Green Guide about suggestions for a greener Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, solstice, whatever.

Let’s start with this now-classic question: How do I know if it’s better to get a live Christmas tree or an artificial one?

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You ask Umbra, of course! Grist‘s environmental advice columnist tackled this topic in depth in a recent column.

How about some suggestions for green holiday cards and gift wrap?

First off, when buying cards and wrap, skip chlorine-bleached paper. Look for the “processed chlorine free” (PCF) label.

You can also reuse old wrapping paper or try last Sunday’s comics; they’re very colorful. Or go through your ragbag and use any clothes, scarves, or, heck, pillowcases you hadn’t figured out what to do with. You can also follow the Japanese custom of furoshiki, or cloth wrapping of gifts, and use new organic-cotton dishcloths or napkins, which then become part of the present. (This works especially nicely if you’re giving kitchenware or food.)

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If you’re still determined to buy gift wrap, you can get a tree-free variety made from hemp, flax, or cotton fiber from Granola Groovy ($1.99 Canadian per sheet;, 250.477.0146). Ecosource has tree-free paper made from 40 percent flax, 40 percent hemp, and 20 percent recovered cotton ($3.20 Canadian per sheet). Mapwrap is made from surplus New York City subway maps ($3 for two sheets).

You can create your own recycled holiday cards by making a montage from family photos, the holiday cards you got last year, cutouts from magazines, and/or all those gift catalogs that come in the mail. If you want to buy cards, Sierra Club offers note cards printed on recycled paper ($14.95 for 20). Acorn Designs has tree-free note cards as well as note cards made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper ($7.50 for six). Or how about cards made from 100 percent recycled junk mail, from Green Field Paper Co. ($5.95 for five)?

Do you have some ideas for good green kid gifts?

The best gift ever may be telling them to drop their video games, go outside, and play — but most kids won’t buy it. So here’s what you can buy instead that’s healthy for the environment and for kids.

Look for solid-wood toys (pressed wood is made with a glue that gives off toxic fumes) that are certified sustainable, decorated with nontoxic paints, and if possible, made by local craftspeople. Try Holgate Toys, Tumbleweed Woodworks, the Organic Gift Shop, or Rosie Hippo’s.

Or you can remind your kids that they still have legs by getting them a foot-powered scooter, available at most toy stores, or a bamboo skateboard, made from the fast-growing sustainable grass ($55). These skateboards are stronger, lighter, and more flexible than conventional boards.

Then there’s that perennial kid pleaser, LEGOs. You can’t beat them for creative possibilities, and — good news — they’re PVC- and phthalate-free. For more green toy suggestions try North Star Toys, Turner Toys, Ecobaby Organics, and the Natural Baby Catalog.

How about little gifts, the kind you might use as stocking stuffers or for those in-between nights of Hanukkah?

Consider Burt’s Bees Beeswax Lip Balm ($2.50), to soothe chapped lips. Aveda’s Rosemary Mint shampoo and conditioner come in 80 percent post-consumer recycled containers. Tuck in some bars of certified organic and fair-trade chocolate from Green & Black’s, or Art Bar and Cocoa Camino. Maple sugar candies are sustainable northern forest products. Or make a quick trip to your local co-op to buy organic ingredients for your own candies and cookies, made in your own kitchen. Yum.

Speaking of food, can you make any suggestions for holiday fare?

Start by visiting your community farmers’ market; they often stay open year-round, selling locally grown, seasonal produce and preserves. When shopping elsewhere, look for the USDA Certified Organic label, guaranteeing food grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Organic seasonal apples, pears, vegetables, and gift baskets can be ordered from Callie’s Organics and Diamond Organics. Gift boxes and baskets of baking mixes, cereals, beans, nuts, pasta, and more can be ordered from the Women’s Bean Project, which helps low-income women develop work skills, Eden Foods, or Fiddler’s Green Farm. And when you’re ready to toast your family and friends, try organic Rain vodka, wine from the Organic Wine Co. or Organic Vintages, or Wolaver’s organic beer.

All this gift-giving is making me a little crazy. Do you know of any altruistic gifts that can directly help the planet and its wild places?

Giving to others and giving back to the planet can go hand in hand. If there’s a budding environmentalist among your family and friends, give him or her a membership to a conservation organization. (It could mean the difference between having holiday dinners with a fellow enviro or going solo again in those arguments with your Uncle Bob about SUVs.)

You can help save the rainforests by adopting an acre of orangutan habitat in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan Province, via The Nature Conservancy ($75 for one acre). To help protect Panama’s Gulf of Chiriqui reefs, you can also donate to The Nature Conservancy’s Rescue the Reef program.

Or your gift can help fight global warming. To absorb a little CO2 this holiday season, have a tree planted in the name of a loved one by Future Forests ($16.81 per tree). Or have 10 trees planted in Central America and one in the U.S. through TreeGivers ($32.95).

The Alternative Gifts International catalog makes it easy to donate on behalf of loved ones to a wide array of social and environmental causes, including child survival, education, disaster relief, sustainable agriculture, and much more.

How do you suggest we light up our holidays?

Candles are a part of almost everyone’s holiday seasons, meaning that, unfortunately, so is the petroleum-based paraffin from which most candles are made. Before buying candles, make sure the tips of wicks don’t contain lead, which can release neurotoxic fumes. And while a little fragrance can add spice to life, avoid aromatherapy candles that use synthetic scents, which contain hormone-disrupting phthalates. A few petroleum-free tapers you can trust are Vermont Soy Candles, Aveda’s Plant Pure-Fume Aroma Candles, or beeswax candles from Honeyflow Farm or Bluecorn Naturals.

Lots of people love to give books as gifts. If you could only recommend three, old or new, which would you choose?

Green literature is a hot genre lately, and there are literally thousands of titles. To help make the choice, we turned to Sandy Lincoln at Seasoned Booksellers, a bookstore specializing in sustainable lifestyles and renewable energy. Her picks? William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle offers a visionary model for a totally recyclable consumer culture (the perfect holiday consumption gift!). Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry’s newest novel, traces changes on a small family-owned farm in the Appalachians while providing thoughtful insights on sustainable agriculture. For kids, try The Field and Forest Handy Book, which helps get children back in touch with nature (and hey, when was the last time you built a tree fort?).

For more than 275 kids’ books about nature and the environment, try Childsake. And for the DIY-er on your list, Chelsea Green Publishing puts out a vast array of green how-to books that can help you build a straw-bale house, plant an organic garden, or serve up eco-cuisine.

Can you offer an update of green gifts for the Twelve Days of … whatever you celebrate?

We thought you’d never ask!

Admittedly, a few of these items (er, nontoxic cleaning supplies and organic mayonnaise) aren’t quite as romantic as a partridge in a pear tree, and they don’t fit snugly into the song’s meter either, but they counter the consumer ethic by suggesting gifts both thoughtful and useful. Plus they will fit in the trunk of your hybrid for the ride to grandmother’s house.

First Day: One water-efficient showerhead. Can save 20,000 gallons of water per year! Oxygenics showerheads start at $29.95.

Second Day: Two certified organic or humanely raised chickens. Get them from Diamond Organics ($5.95 per lb.) or Murray’s Chicken, available at most grocery stores ($2.59 per lb.).

Third Day: Three organic fair-trade coffees and teas. Try coffees from Dean’s Beans ($3.75 to $8 per lb.) or Equal Exchange ($18 for 2 lbs.), or choose black or green tea from Choice Organic Teas ($3.10-$4.10 for 1 box of 16 bags).

Fourth Day: Four sustainably harvested wood kitchen tools. From Tarahumara Women’s Cooperative in Cusarare, Chihuahua, Mexico, a serving spoon is $12, a spatula is $16, and bowls start at $20.

Fifth Day: Five compact fluorescent light bulbs. Light up the holidays with one-third the energy of a conventional bulb. The Energy Federation sells Energy Star-rated CFLs for less than retail at $3 to $10 each.

Sixth Day: Six recycled glass drinking glasses. Drink from recycled bottles made into mugs and wineglasses by artisans. Try mugs in green or cobalt ($3.25 each) or tumblers ($25.95 for six).

Seventh Day: Seven natural personal-care products. Try Vermont Soap’s Aloe Castile Liquid Soap ($4.99 for 8 oz.) and Three-Bar Gift Packs ($12.99), Terressentials Organic Lip Protector ($3.75), Kiss My Face Active Enzyme Deodorant ($3.59 for 1.7 oz.), Kingfisher Fennel Toothpaste ($3.99 for 6.6 oz.), Tom’s of Maine Natural Shaving Cream ($4.56 for 3.6 oz.), and Nature’s Gate Anise Dental Floss ($2.82 for 50 yds.).

Eighth Day: Eight nontoxic household cleaning supplies. To wit: Life Tree Ultra Dishwashing Liquid ($3.11 for 15 oz.), Seventh Generation Free & Clear Liquid Laundry Detergent ($6.80 for 50 oz.), Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds Liquid Cleaner ($5.90 for 16 oz.), Oxy-Drain, an enzyme drain unclogger ($8.85 for 1 lb.), Ecover Automatic Dishwashing Powder ($5.58 48 oz.), Earth Friendly Products Toilet Bowl Cleaner ($3.59 for 24 oz.), Heather’s Natural Oxygen Bleach Cleanser ($3.29 for 14 oz.), and substitute a white-vinegar-and-water solution for conventional glass cleaner.

Ninth Day: Nine safer, greener paper household items. Try these recycled, chlorine-free paper products: Seventh Generation napkins, paper towels, paper plates, bathroom tissue, and facial tissue. And these unbleached ones: If You Care coffee filters, parchment paper, baking paper, and baking cups.

Tenth Day: Ten local or organic products in season. Buying locally supports small farms and reduces fossil-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions from long-distance hauling. Or you can give a membership to your local food co-op, or a share in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm or garden.

Eleventh Day: Eleven organic staples. Buy in bulk and zero out the packaging.

1) 1 lb. organic rice (bulk), $1.25-$2
2) 1 lb. organic flour (bulk), $0.60
3) 1 lb. organic oatmeal (bulk), $0.75
4) 1 lb. organic peanut butter (bulk), $3-$5
5) 32 oz. unrefined organic sugar, $2.89, from Florida Crystal
6) 1/4 lb. sea salt, $7.50, from Fleur de Sel de Guerande
7) 16 oz. expeller-pressed organic canola oil, $2.69, from 365 Organic
8) 1 qt. organic mayonnaise, $4.99, from Spectrum
9) 1 can organic tomatoes, $1.99, from Muir Glen
10) 16 oz. organic pasta, $2.19, from Bionature
11) 1 loaf organic whole wheat bread, $2.89

Twelfth Day: Twelve organic cotton napkins. A bit of a splurge, but they’ll add elegance to any holiday table. Three sets of four organic cotton sateen napkins, $42.

Happy holidays from Grist and The Green Guide!

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