It's that time of year again: the high street is awash with twinkling lights and harassed shoppers, and supermarket shelves are heaving with bumper tins of Quality Street and string bags of sprouts. But whether you love Christmas shopping or loathe it, the festive season is expensive.
However, if the economic downturn has taught us anything, it's that we really don't need to spend a fortune to have fun. If you take the focus away from forking out on presents, food and drink, and turn it towards sharing the costs with your family, supporting charities and doing your bit for the environment, you can enjoy a cheaper and more rewarding Christmas.
Sharing the cost
It's all very well trying to cut costs, but if you're hosting dinner it isn't easy to put on an impressive spread on a tight budget. The solution? Get everyone to chip in.
"The Christmas period can be an expensive time, but with careful planning, we can all save money without having to cut down on the indulgence," explains Julia Falcon, spokesperson for the Love Food Hate Waste campaign.
It can feel rather mean to ask your guests to pay for their dinner, so instead why not ask everyone to bring a different dish or course with them? You can of course have a potluck dinner, but if you want to be certain of a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, it's a good idea to arrange who brings what in advance.
If you're going for the traditional Christmas dinner, it's easiest for the host to deal with the turkey and all-important gravy and stuffing, and share out responsibility for the rest of the meal. You could ask two of your guests to bring vegetables, for example, place another in charge of potatoes, and then ensure dessert, cheese and biscuits, and wine are covered.
An increasingly popular way to slash the cost of buying gifts is to organise a 'Secret Santa'. Simply put everyone's name into a hat, and the name you pull out is the person you buy a gift for. You agree how much to spend, then everyone gets together to exchange presents – half the fun is guessing who bought what for whom.
"I have five brothers and sisters, and as we started getting married and having children, the expense of buying gifts for everyone soon got out of hand," says Leila Turner, 29, who lives in London but is returning to her home town in Arizona in the US for Christmas. "So we decided to carry on buying gifts for the children, but to set a spending limit and play Secret Santa among the adults.
Leila, a management consultant, who has lived in the UK for eight years, explains: "We play a gift-exchange game. The way it works is no one buys for any specific person, we just buy a gift that multiple people might like and it goes into the pile.
We then draw lots and select a gift from the pile, and after everyone has opened their gifts, we all start trading and haggling over them. It's a lot of fun, and we set a reasonable limit so everyone walks away with a really nice present."
To cut the cost of buying for family friends without feeling stingy, consider buying a joint gift for the entire family rather than individual presents for parents and kids. A game or puzzle, is a good idea, or you could put together a festive hamper that everyone can enjoy.
Christmas is just like any other time for Grace Muir – in fact, it's actually much harder work, as she's usually short-staffed on that day. Grace set up HEROS, a charity that retrains and re-homes ex-racehorses, at North Farm Stud at Wantage in Oxfordshire in 2006.
"I've never really celebrated Christmas in the traditional sense," says Grace, 44. "The horses don't know it's Christmas, so life goes on as usual."
North Farm Stud belongs to Grace's parents, and she worked there for around 20 years before setting up HEROS. "I'd often hear from trainers that certain racehorses were no use for the racetrack anymore, due to injury or other problems," she explains.
"But I knew they could be good for other things, so I re-homed around 350 horses. Yet it was difficult to provide any ongoing care or back-up support due to lack of funding."
So Grace launched HEROS at Newbury Racecourse in 2006. "We work hard to match horses to suitable owners, and re-home around 100 each year," she explains.
Christmas morning sees Grace up early to tend to the 150 horses, with a morning session of feeding, grooming, mucking-out and exercise, followed by the same routine in the evening. "The Christmas rota involves a lot of planning as I give my 20 staff the choice whether to work or not," says Grace. "Running HEROS is really hard work, but my love for the horses keeps me going."
Unlike Grace, we usually associate Christmas with material goodies, but there are other more valuable gifts we can give – we can donate our money or time to those who need it most. Visit your favourite charity's website and you will find a host of ways to get involved and show your support through volunteering and fundraising.
The whole family can get involved with fundraising, and traditional activities can be given a Christmas twist, such as fancy-dress fun-runs or craft fairs and auctions. There are limitless unusual and crazy ways to raise cash and most charities provide advice on how to organise and run events.
You can also incorporate giving to charity into the cards and gifts you give, and if you'd rather not receive presents this year, you could ask people to donate to a charity on your behalf instead. Alternatively, you can buy items like livestock or books for communities in the developing world.
If you still want to give a gift that can be unwrapped on Christmas morning, however, it's possible to donate to a good cause by buying charity gifts. Many charities now have ethically traded ranges of Christmas cards and wrapping paper, decorations, gifts and food products, with all or a proportion of the profits going to the charity.
Reducing your waste at Christmas will minimise the impact your yuletide celebrations have on both the environment and your wallet.
"Do we need to send around 744 million Christmas cards a year, the equivalent of 248,000 trees?" asks Doug Stewart, founder of Green Energy UK. "Make your seasonal greetings more personal and friendly by speaking to your friends, family and colleagues and wishing them a Merry Christmas instead."
"If you receive cards, recycle them or reuse them as gift tags. It's fun for kids to make their own cards using recycled resources," adds Stewart. Unused cards can be dropped off at recycling bins at WHSmith, TK Maxx and M&S stores in January 2010 as part of the Woodland Trust campaign to recycle cards and plant more trees.
Stewart says we waste a colossal 125,000 tonnes of plastic over Christmas, so always take a reusable bag when you shop and watch out for the amount of packaging that comes with the food you buy.
"Buy loose fruit and vegetables and try to buy local wherever possible. Farmers' markets are a great way of doing this and are a fun, festive day out for the family," says Stewart. Find your nearest market at farmersmarkets.net.
"Once your cooking's done, if you're feeling adventurous, why not turn your vegetable peelings into compost? Who knows, you could make next year's Christmas dinner with vegetables you've grown yourself," he adds.
Suzanne Robinson and her 10-year-old daughter Molly, for example, are looking forward to using the bounty from their vegetable patch this Christmas.
"It's been our second year growing fruit, vegetables and herbs, and it's gone really well," says Suzanne, 39, a freelance design consultant from Birmingham. "We harvested them in the autumn, and are looking forward to using the potatoes, carrots and parsnips when we have the family over for Christmas dinner."
Suzanne and Molly have also had a jam and chutney-making session, using the apples, plums, onions and rhubarb from their garden to make tasty preserves to give Molly's friends.
"Molly's very 'green-minded'; she wanted to make her own presents and cards this year," says Suzanne. "I think it's important to use the things we have around us rather than heading straight to the shops."
Cooking is both an environmentally friendly and economical way to make presents. Everyone loves culinary treats – and jams, chutneys, cookies, cakes and fudge are all easy to make.
And if Christmas just doesn't feel right without a real tree, go for one that has roots, so you can plant it in the garden and use it next year.
"Many local authorities now dispose of trees and turn them into wood chippings," says Stewart. "So if your tree dies, contact your local authority to see if they'll dispose of it for you in an environmentally friendly way."
The gifts we buy can generate a huge amount of waste, so try to avoid those with extravagant packaging. If you think your friends and family will appreciate it, why not look for presents in vintage clothing shops, charity shops and antique markets?
"This has a number of benefits," says Stewart. "You're cutting out the packaging altogether, doing a bit of recycling and buying a unique gift."
So re-thinking how you celebrate Christmas doesn't have to turn you into Scrooge, with your friends and family shouting "bah humbug" at you. In fact, they will more than likely welcome a break from the old festive routine.
Save on festive food
It's estimated we waste a third of the food we buy each Christmas, but simple planning could help reduce this waste and save money. "Plan your meals and make a list of everything you're going to need – and stick to it," advises Doug Stewart, founder of Green Energy UK.
"Take advantage of buy-one-get-one-free offers, but ask yourself if you really need the item in the first place. Don't be lured by what seems a good deal."
Use the freezer to store any food that's not needed. It will last well into the New Year and you'll always have something ready to bring out for unexpected guests. Leftover party foods such as quiches and sausage rolls freeze well and can be used in packed lunches when you return to work and the kids go back school.
To avoid making too much food for your festive celebrations, Julia Falcon, spokesperson for the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, recommends using the portion calculator at lovefoodhatewaste.com.
"If you do have leftovers, there are plenty of easy ways to turn them into brand-new meals – from turkey and vegetable soup to Christmas-pudding ice cream," she adds. There's a host of great recipes at lovefoodhatewaste.com that use common leftovers like cooked potatoes, cranberry sauce and Stilton cheese.
|Alternative Gift Ideas|
|For green fingers||Organic grow box, £12.95 - My Original Gift Company|
|For kids||Wooden A-Z crocodile, £14.99 - Save the Children|
|For men||Eletronic self-powered shaver, £19.99 - WWF|
|For animal lovers||2010 desk diary, £9.95 - WWF|
|For chocolate lovers||Montezuma speciality organic gift bar, £14.95|
|For the DIY enthusiast||Thrifty Chic: Interior style on a shoestring by Liz Bauwens and Alexandra Campbell £13.99, CICO Books|
|For the family||Rubik's 360, £14.95|
|For those who have everything||Seven blankets for babies, £19 Unicef|