Have yourself a more mindful little Christmas: 32 ideas for a thoughtful, environmentally-friendly (and cheaper!) festive season

Your guide to gifting, shopping, socialising and minding yourself over the weeks ahead

'If you hit the shops first thing in the morning everywhere you go will be quiet and calm.' Illustration: Getty Images/Cathal O'Gara

Gathering – Roe McDermott

Set a purpose for gathering

Since the pandemic, many people have expressed anxiety around gathering or are experiencing loneliness and disconnection. Even while socialising, some can feel disconnected from friends and family. Priya Parker, host of the New York Times podcast Together Apart and the author of The Art Of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, argues that too often, we focus on the external trappings of gatherings like food and decorations, and assume the connections and relationships and atmosphere will magically fall into place. To avoid stale socialising and autopilot connections this Christmas, Parker encourages us to think mindfully about why we’re gathering, and how we would like to connect – and to not be afraid to name the purpose of a gathering. Doing so cannot only frame the tone of the evening, but help guests understand what parts of themselves they can bring.

Create new traditions

For a lot of Irish people, Christmas was always centred around attending Mass and gathering afterwards. As many people have moved away from the Church, they may be looking for ways to maintain a sense of sacredness and spirituality. Think about what traditions feel meaningful as a guide to creating new rituals. Finding small ways of marking time together and creating a shared experience is important. Singing together, lighting candles at the beginning of a meal, expressing gratitude or thanks are all ways of imbuing gatherings with meaning.

Play games

Going home for holidays can sometimes become fraught or shift us into autopilot as family members fall into childhood roles; the host, the provocateur, the peacekeeper. While roles can be important in groups and families, they can stop serving us as we grow. Games can help families use play to see different sides of each other and interrupt pre-existing hierarchies. If Monopoly gets the family too competitive, try a creative activity making gingerbread houses or Christmas wreaths, which can be fun, artistic and give everyone a festive party favour to take home.

Assign new responsibilities

Hosting, particularly cooking and cleaning, can often be left to the same family members every year, which cannot only cause resentment, but mean the same people inherently get more time together as some gravitate towards food prep while others end up in front of the television. Disrupting these patterns not only divides responsibilities more equally, but also allows different people to spend time with each other.


“I knew a family and they found a fun way to pair cooks and non-cooks, and created a cooking competition where, over the course of three days, people that wouldn’t necessarily ordinarily spend time together would be responsible for the meal,” Parker says. “They were gamifying the food a bit, while doing something much deeper, starting to shift some of the roles of who’s caretaking, who’s doing labour, and building on relationships that might otherwise get neglected.”

Disrupt the dinner table arguments

Many families gathering over Christmas are made up of several generations of people with vastly different world views, political opinions and life experiences, and too often, the Christmas dinner table can just become an explosion of loudly stated opinions and arguments. If this is an annual occurrence, setting some ground rules for the gathering might help family members to communicate and connect. Parker, who is also a conflict resolution facilitator, advises families to think of the need of the group. “Maybe the need is a shared experience. Or the need is to laugh, to have fun. Don’t assume that that the only way to connect is through talk, particularly in politically divisive or politically diverse families,” she says.

Having a shared experience like a games night, movie marathon or winter walk may prove more peaceful and connecting for families who often find themselves fighting. If a family do want to have more fruitful and connecting conversations, Parker recommends that everyone agree to some empathetic ground rules. “If you are going to talk, share stories not opinions. Sharing personal stories allows people to widen their aperture of their understanding so they know why you believe what you believe.”

Consider your gathering diet

You’ve heard of nutritional diets and information diets, but have you considered your gathering diet? For some people, the holiday season can become a stress-filled schedule of obligations as annual pub crawls, house parties, family visits and catch-ups mean there is little time to relax – and perhaps not enough meaningful connection happening amid the madness. Parker encourages people to think about what kinds of gatherings they need to feel fulfilled and connected. “Think about which gatherings nourish you and which ones drain you and which ones are important to you and why?” she says. Irish people are great at large gatherings, and coming together serves an important purpose in forming bonds, maintaining relationships and building communities, so it’s important to make the effort – but if a pub crawl leaves you hungover for days, maybe skip and try to connect with your friends individually over coffee in the new year.

Don’t be a flake!

Despite an apparent universal hatred of ghosting and last-minute cancelling, the societal scourge of flaking is still rampant – but over Christmas when schedules are extra tight, it’s important not to waste people’s time. Much of this comes down to not people-pleasing or agreeing to attend events just to be polite, even if you’ve no intention of attending. Take the time to consider an invitation before responding, so you’re more likely to keep your commitments. We can often fear that refusing an invitation will be perceived as rude – but it’s much ruder to unenthusiastically accept an invitation only to cancel last minute. If you don’t have the energy for Auntie Mary’s Stephen’s Day breakfast or have conflicting New Year’s Eve invitations, you can issue what Parker calls a “connected no” – turning down the invitation but maintaining the connection by calling the person for a catch-up, or arranging a lunch or tea with them in a few weeks.

Gifting – Róisín Ingle

Vouching for experiences

At 84, my mother only wants what she calls “experience” presents. Even though her whole life is contained in one room, she still thinks she has “too much stuff”. (In fairness, most of us have too much stuff.) Recently, as a birthday gift I brought her to Carousel, a movie she first saw as a teenager in the 1950s. It was on at the Stella in Rathmines, which shows classic movies every Friday afternoon, where a ticket included a free glass of prosecco and a chocolate.

Vouchers they’ll love

I don’t subscribe to the notion that vouchers are thoughtless presents. They’ll be used up and spent on something the recipient actually likes, which is more than what can be said for those last minute, panic-induced gifts. Give them a voucher for a restaurant you know they’ll love, or one for their favourite book shop or museum.

Gift of time

A handwritten voucher is also charming and practical. For those new parents emerging from the sleepless haze and beginning to socialise again – a voucher for a night of babysitting. For the person recovering from an illness or a difficult time – a voucher for a home-made dinner delivered to their door and the pleasure of your company. For a child, a voucher for a duvet day to be used any time in January.

Gifts with heart

For a really conscious Christmas gift, check out chooselove.org where you can buy medical, food or other essential supplies for refugees and displaced people across the world. Buy these “virtual gifts with heart” for yourself or in the name of a loved one who really doesn’t need any more stuff.

Frame it

As a Scrabble fan, one of the best presents I ever got was a framed second-hand Scrabble board with the names of myself, my partner and our two children displayed in a grid. It’s the kind of thing you would never bother doing for yourself, and that makes it all the more pleasing. Framing is cost-effective – especially with inexpensive shop-bought frames – and a thoughtful way to spread joy. It might be a handwritten favourite poem, a child’s painting or a receipt or memento from a special occasion; or that perfect photo you took of friends on a night out, a candid moment captured at a wedding or a childhood photo that deserves to be seen and enjoyed every day. Framed presents are a guaranteed winner and best of all, will never end up in the regifting pile.

Shopping – Conor Pope

Be organised and early

In US retail there is a concept called the Last-Minute Man (sadly, more often than not it is a man). He shows up in a department store at 4pm on Christmas Eve with a long list of presents to buy, willing to spend whatever money he has on stuff recipients may or may not like. A good shop assistant will be trained to spot the last-minute man and push unwise or expensive present options their way. If you are in danger of being this person, you need to shop early. That means no later than the end of this week. And if you ignore our advice – as many will – then remember that when you do go shopping on December 23rd, try to look calm no matter how stressed you are on the inside, or else you’ll be taken for a mug (and may even end up buying one). When we suggest you shop early, we’re also talking about the time of day. If you hit the shops first thing in the morning everywhere you go will be quiet and calm – even just days before Christmas – and you will benefit from the serenity and make wiser shopping choices.

Make a list

Not a list of gifts, but a list of gift-getters. Decide how much you are going to spend on each person. Buy the most expensive and the most important present first. Once that is done your anxiety levels should decrease, allowing you to move calmly down the list.

Keep an open mind

You might have some excellent ideas for the people in your life but allow for the possibility that you will stumble upon something amazing that you might never have thought about before. But – and this is a very important but – when we say amazing, we mean the recipient will think it is amazing. There is nothing worse than buying a present you love for someone you love if there is any chance they might find it a bit, meh. Some older readers may remember Homer and Marge Simpson and the bowling ball. If you do, don’t ever get the bowling ball.

Don’t go crazy in the supermarket

If you do your big shop on December 23rd, remember you are only really shopping for four days so you don’t need to load up your trolley like you are heading into Armageddon. Tot up how many people you need to feed and make a list of what you need. You almost certainly do not need two shopping trolleys just because you are doing the Christmas shop. You don’t need a massive ham, so don’t be duped into buying one just because it is on the shelf in the supermarket. When it comes to turkeys, bigger is better: the bone structure of a 14lb turkey and an 8lb turkey are pretty similar, which means the smaller bird is mostly bone while the larger one has a much higher proportion of meat, relatively speaking.

For heaven’s sake, relax

Far too many people put far too much pressure on themselves in December as they try to recreate the “perfect Christmas”. There is no such thing as the perfect table setting, the perfect tree or (and we can’t believe we have to say this) the perfect Brussels sprouts. So much of the messaging around Christmas is about perfection. But don’t be worrying, there is no such thing as a perfect Christmas.

Drinking – Róisín Ingle


Hark, what yonder breaks? I bring good news: Christmas doesn’t have to mean getting constantly sozzled. If you are one of the growing number of sober curious people you’re in luck as the genre has exploded in recent years. Whether you are cutting down or cutting out alcohol completely, these self-help guides will be invaluable over the season: Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life by Rosamund Dean; Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol by Ruby Warrington; and The Good Drinker: How I Learned To Love Drinking Less by BBC broadcaster Adrian Chiles.

Drink in disguise

To avoid the inevitable “what, you’re not drinking, but it’s Christmas?!” conversations, choose a non-alcoholic beverage that looks exactly like a boozy one. Sparkling water with a slice of lemon is a ringer for a gin and tonic. Guinness Zero could not be picked from the real thing in a line up and actually tastes grand. Instead of bags of cans or bottles of wine, arrive to parties with a stash of non-alcoholic cocktails. Whip them up yourself at home using alcohol-free “spirits” or buy them ready made.

Make like Cinderella

This tip comes from Peter O’Brien, who founded Happenings, a company organising sustainable, meaningful and alcohol-free cultural events. He recommends leaving, like Cinders, before midnight when events can often take a turn for the messy. “The most important thing is to get out of dodge at the right time ... the number one thing you should do is get out of there before the monsters appear,” he says. “You will thank yourself the next morning and you will not have missed anything, because you never, ever miss anything that happens from that time of night on, especially around Christmas.”

Making, reusing and thrifting – Catherine Cleary

Buy less but better

One December morning a few years ago there we all were, in a queue for the dump, with boot loads of waste for the concrete pit and its giant skips. The purge was both satisfying and unsettling. “Getting rid of all the crap to make room for more,” a man cheerfully remarked. Christmas stuff is inherently reusable. There is an ageless quality to it. When we haul the decorations down from the attic it feels like unwrapping time. There’s something comforting about seeing the familiar gewgaws once a year. Buy less but better, and wrap it all up in tissue paper for next year. Keep the season well and have yourself a reusable little Christmas.

Deck the halls with home-made decorations

Sew (or get a talented friend to sew) an every-year Advent Calendar. By now we will hopefully have found the (always missing) bamboo cane and hung the beautiful advent calendar my friend Loyola made for us from upcycled material, each pocket big enough for a daily December chocolate. It makes me appreciate the privilege of having space to store things and a warm safe home to hang them in. Last year with my goddaughter we bent willow stems into a circle, secured them with crafting wire and decorated them with ribbons to make a home-made minimalist wreath.

That’s a cracker

Reusable crackers (available from Earthmother) can be filled with plastic-free presents. The snaps can be bought separately and loaded up for next year. For an even thriftier version, craft your own with crepe paper and toilet roll cardboard. If you want to make them historically accurate, add in some sugared almonds, write out your corniest cracker jokes and pop in a folded party hat – you can buy 100 hats for less than €6 from Party Delights.

Make a tree

You can make a wall-hung tree from branches and hairy string. Find some straightish windblown branches and carefully cut them into descending lengths. Drill a hole through the ends and string them with two lengths of hairy string knotted at the bottom. Put the smallest at the top, largest at the bottom, leaving a gap in between so they form a large triangle. You can make this without the drilling by tying the string around the ends of the branches. Once it’s hung on the wall you can hang lights and decorations that aren’t too heavy from it.

Don’t bin the tree

This year I have ordered a pot-grown Christmas tree from christmastrees.ie, and plan to re-pot it in January and mind it in the garden for years to come. If you’re lucky enough to be in Cork you can rent your potted tree and return it in January for them to take care of.

Make the glad rags gladder

Thrift shops, charity shops and vintage stores are all fun to wander around in search of a better Christmas jumper or party frock. If you don’t have the time to go to the shops in real life, try Thriftify.com. For party wear or just a new look, book a half-hour swap session with Change Clothes Crumlin. Bring a bag of up to 10 clean items of clothing in good condition and get tokens to help yourself to new-to-you items from the rails, all for the price of €5.

Go classic

The ultimate reusable Christmas favourite? It’s a Wonderful Life. Cinemas are showing it around the country from next weekend. We brought a young person last year who loved it, blown away by the idea that people were actually funny in 1946. Dorothy Parker was a script consultant. Unlike a fast fashion Christmas jumper it has aged beautifully, and seems more relevant by the year.

Make it about experiences

I am set in my Christmas ways. Soaking the fruit for Nigella’s Boozy Christmas cake recipe? Check. Watching the latest Christmas romcom with the first born son? Check. Forcing our kids down the South Wall for a walk on Christmas Eve whatever the rain radar says? Check.

Mind yourself – Sylvia Thompson

Indulge in self-compassion

Many people suffer from the lack of light as we approach the darkest days of the year. One way of dealing with these low moods is to show yourself some self-compassion. As someone who used to loathe November and the frenzy of pre-Christmas consumerism, an online course in self-compassion I did in November 2021 helped me find a better balance at this time of year. The key is to savour the things you enjoy (playing or listening to music, reading, cooking for family or friends) and not feel compelled to join the crowds in busy shopping centres if that’s not your thing. The Sanctuary runs free online meditation classes that anyone can join. It also hosts meditation, self-compassion and mindfulness courses.

Walk or run outdoors

We often underestimate the benefits of spending time outdoors in the winter months. The endorphins we get from vigorous exercise are released even more during cold weather (and following a cold shower or ice bath), and leave us in a happier state of mind. So, finding opportunities to safely walk or run outdoors during the hours of brightness can have a restorative effect on the body and mind. Check with your local sports partnership if there are any organised runs or walks planned for your area over Christmas.


Singing is good for the mind, body and soul, and Christmas provides many opportunities for people to join in at charity carol singing events or local church services. The benefits of communal singing, particularly for migrants and refugees, have been researched at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. Prof Helen Phelan says music and singing creates a connection between the past and the future, memory and imagination. “Migration – especially forced migration due to trauma or conflict – creates a disruption between the past and the future but music creates a cathartic space to visit the past and when you are able to do that, you are able to imagine the future,” she says.

Random acts of kindness

In their Silent Night Christmas appeal, Friends of the Elderly is asking people to make five-minute phone calls to older family members, friends or neighbours to help them feel less lonely this Christmas. Sometimes, the gift of your time and undivided attention is worth much more to someone – whether they are nine or 90 – than an expensive gift. And, you’ll feel good too.