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Traditional Nordic Practices for a Healthier Christmas

Products sold as Christmas decorations contain substances that have been linked to causing cancer, learning disabilities, weight gain and other health problems.

Miriam

Written by Miriam

11 min read

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A snow covered wood cabin in the mountains surrounded by trees

Isn’t Christmas meant to be the most wonderful time of the year? Perhaps it is time to reassess the way you’re spending your money this festive season and start understanding how to optimize your health by choosing ‘clean’ Christmas decorations. 

An independent study by an NPO The Ecology Center, shows that two-thirds of the seasonal holiday decor on the market is so toxic, even short term exposure can wreak havoc on your hormones. This could lead to weight gain amongst many other concerning health issues. So maybe Christmas cookies aren’t the only thing causing you to go up two sizes in jeans!

Shops are overflowing with gift ideas and holiday decorations, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we need everything. Gone are the days when the Christmas tree was the same year after year, and the house was decorated with Grandma’s gingerbread creations. Trends are constantly changing, and we feel that our homes and trees need a new look every year.

What ends up happening is that Christmas becomes the season to stock up on plastics. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are four traiditonal ways Nordic people keep their holidays merry and clean.

How to choose a Christmas tree that will be healthy for your home

Picture of a family decorating a christmas tree
Plastic trees can be toxic. But are real trees any better?

Artificial Christmas trees are becoming increasingly popular in households. They’re seen as a more eco-friendly and budget-friendly option in the long run. 

They do have their advantages when compared to real trees. For one, they don’t shed, so you don’t have to spend your holidays with a vacuum cleaner attached to your arm. They also eliminate the question of what to do with the tree once the season is over, as they can simply be stored in the attic or garage.  

Parents with young children or pets also appreciate the soft pine needles of artificial trees. But do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks?

Artificial or fake trees are usually made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), an extremely toxic compound. They are polluting when being produced and very hard to dispose of safely. 

PVC is very hard, so the manufacturers add softeners like lead and phthalates into the mix to make it moldable. Phthalates are well-known endocrine-disrupting chemicals linked to asthma, neurodevelopmental issues, cancers, obesity, diabetes, and fertility issues. These chemicals off-gas into our living spaces throughout the holidays and stay even longer, nested in the furniture and house dust. The heat from the lights can further accelerate the process.

If that wasn’t enough, many trees made this way are treated with flame retardants for obvious, but not necessarily sensible, reasons. 

If you already have an artificial tree or decide to buy one for any reason still, make sure you air them out before bringing it inside your house. Also, make sure you wash your hands after handling and decorating the tree and before eating. And it goes almost without saying that you should not use gingerbread cookies that might be eaten later as a decoration.

But are real trees a better option?

The majority of real Christmas trees come from a Christmas tree farm. If you are environmentally conscious, the good news is that these farms are usually located in areas where no other crops grow. 

But it’s not all that simple. For example, a tree takes about seven years to mature into a Christmas tree. During this time, the farms are likely to spray the trees with pesticides like glyphosate (Roundup) and chlorpyrifos. These aren’t good for the environment, farmworkers, or homes. 

There are, however, a few organic Christmas tree farms. You can use the Green Promise site to see if there’s one near you. Always always ask the seller about the use of the chemicals mentioned above. 

Although you might be able to find an organic tree, you’ll need to watch out for mold, especially if you have a family member who is mold-sensitive. Mold is natural for the trees, and within a forest, it isn’t a problem at all. But once you bring a tree indoors, close all the windows, and you quickly create a mold issue. 

If anyone in your family is mold-sensitive, I recommend skipping the tree altogether. However, there are still some alternatives, like building your own using untreated natural wood or simply decorating one of your house plants. 

But what about the traditional Nordic practice? Well, we head to the nearest forest, pick out the tree we like, cut it down and carry it home. This may or may not be an option where you live. But doing it like this is fun for the whole family, and you can be damn sure that the tree you got is organic.

Whatever tree you end up getting, keep the bigger picture of your health in mind. 

Ditch the synthetic candles

There’s nothing more soothing than the flame of a fireplace or a candle on a cold winter evening. Lighting candles also replicates our traditional lighting, which saves you from toxic blue light exposure and balances your circadian rhythm.

The problem is that most candles are made with paraffin, a petroleum by-product that releases carcinogenic soot when burned. 

Apart from this toxic residue, they also remove microscopic particles from synthetic oils, which, when inhaled, can cause a range of health issues.  

Countless studies that looked at the health effects of chemicals used to make fragranced products classified them as allergens, hormone disruptors, asthma triggers, neurotoxins & carcinogens. The symptoms range from lethargy, allergies, migraines, and skin irritations to hormonal disruptions when you’re exposed.

An image of a candle in a dimly lit holiday themed room
It would be tempting to keep the candles you already have as a decoration. However, synthetically scented candles release volatile organic compounds. Lit or not! 

To keep the magic of burning candles alive:

  1. Choose coconut, soy, or beeswax candles.
  2. Look for products that are clearly labeled as made from 100 percent natural wax.
  3. Watch out for scented products tagged as organic, as this could be a purely “greenwashing” marketing strategy. 
  4. Opt for the traditional Nordic way and make your own natural candles.

Natural candles can be a lot more expensive than conventional ones, but the investment is worth it. And if it’s something your budget doesn’t allow for, let the smell of freshly baked Christmas cookies take over your home.  

Change the way you use unavoidable plastics

Ok, this one isn’t exactly a Nordic tradition, but we snuck it in anyway. We’re no fans of plastic, but there’s also no doubt that this toxic material does have a place in our lives. Unfortunately, not even our kitchen is 100% plastic-free. It’s nearly impossible to avoid it altogether. 

The two most common kitchen appliances where plastics are found are food processors and blenders. Even the best brands don’t always have a glass or stainless steel option available- sometimes, they are simply too expensive.

Picture of blender with fruits inside
Not all plastic is easy to avoid or part with. Instead, we can change our behaviour. 

The problem with these hard polycarbonate items is that they almost always contain bisphenols—even the ones labeled as BPA-free. And from research, we know that even low dose BPA exposure can lead to cardiovascular problems, including coronary artery heart disease, angina, heart attack, hypertension, and a range of other, especially hormonal balance-related health issues. 

Should you ditch these items and never use them again? That’s not going to be necessary. Instead, tweak your behavior when using them.

  • Avoid putting hot food in blenders and food processors. Let everything cool down thoroughly first. If the food has to be blended hot, such as soups, or your MUST have morning bulletproof coffee, use an immersion blender for the job.
  • Do not wash these in a dishwasher. The hot water and salts can scratch the plastic, making it easier for the particles to leak into your food later on. Instead, hand wash in lukewarm soapy water, using the soft side of the sponge. Never scrub! 
  • Minimize the use of these appliances to grind hard stuff, such as coffee or cacao beans, ice, and even some nuts and spices. The abrasion can increase the release of compounds from plastics. 
  • Do not let the food sit in the container for too long. Empty the containers when you’re done blending or processing and store the final foods in a glass container. 

You’re already paying a lot of attention to your health and making an effort to prepare healthy homemade meals for yourself and your family. Managing the exposure to plastic is a step further.

And when guests come over

We tend to get more lenient about certain practices during the holidays, especially if it means avoiding an awkward situation with our guests. But unfortunately, this opens us up to unnecessary exposure to toxins. 

One of the biggest issues I’ve struggled with in the past is asking guests to remove their shoes. I’m still surprised when people don’t do this in their own homes, but I’ve learned not to judge. However, when it comes to my home, the shoes come off at the entrance. So I have no issue asking our guests right away. 

I know it’s not that easy for everyone, as we tend to fear being perceived as high-maintenance or a germophobe. But ultimately, it is your home and your right to ask for things like this. And there’s a way of doing it without having to ask verbally. 

Leave your shoes at the entrance so your guests know where the shoes go. You can also have a little “Please leave your shoes here” sign near the designated area. Your guests will understand, and I doubt anyone will ask questions. 

To make it more comfortable for the guests, you could provide a few pairs of warm socks ready for them to wear. You could even add to the Christmas spirit by putting a festive spin on it!

An image of shoes with sweets inside next to a tiny christmas tree
Party favors in shoes are always a fun touch. In some countries, this is a tradition for the kids to celebrate. On December 5th, St. Nicholas is celebrated by bringing candy and fruit to children who cleaned their shoes.

So, this one is a personal quirk and might be a tad too much for most: people’s perfumes. With twenty guests in the house, chances are, you’re going to have a soup of twenty different fragrances overpowering the delicious holiday meals you’ve been preparing the entire day. And of course, the more significant concern is the chemicals being released into the air as people move around and sweat. It might be sad to read this, but it’s the truth.

It is a similar but lesser issue with synthetically fragranced candles. If you haven’t yet, I strongly encourage you to read our 10 Invisible Killers Guide. It can be downloaded here.

The tricky part is that you need to ask people not to wear perfumes ahead of time. After a few experiences with house guests, we agreed on a rule that whoever has friends coming over will message them and politely ask not to bring any perfumes or aerosols. We adopted this practice when friends stay longer, but it can also be done during dinners and parties. 

Chances are, you’ve either sent out an official invite to your friends and family or will at least send a reminder text with details, such as the date, time, and address. Include a little message about housekeeping rules and have fun with it. I’ve never had a friend or a family member who got offended. 

The message can go something like this: 

“And one small favor to ask before it gets too awkward. As neither of us uses perfumes and we are quite sensitive to them, we kindly ask that our guests don’t wear their fragrances. But, don’t worry; there will be plenty of Christmas cookie aromas to make the dinner festive :).” 

See? That wasn’t so hard. Just make sure you have some cookies ready. And if all else fails, you can diffuse some essential oil or leave a bowl of water with your favorite oils or spices in a warm (slightly open) oven.

That’s a wrap

We were happy to see our overall health improve by implementing these four simple changes into our lives. I hope you can incorporate some of these tips into this year’s festive period to reap the benefits. 

Remember that Christmas is about spending quality time with your loved ones and material objects are not the focus- especially if they are impacting your health! We all spend a lot of time indoors during the holidays, so it is important that we keep our environments as ‘clean’ as possible. 

Enjoy making your home a safe place for you and your family to enjoy a special time of year.

Happy and healthy holidays!