I know what you're thinking -- here comes the obligatory "green holidays" story. Food writers dust off their zucchini recipes in July, and we environmental writers wrack our brains for dowdy "green" alternatives to wrapping paper.
But there's good reason for our predictability. If you bear any resemblance to the average American, you'll make 70 percent of your discretionary purchases in November and December. You will buy one of the 40 million Christmas trees cut for the purpose. You will use dozens of yards of wrapping paper and subsequently throw away dozens of yards of wrapping paper. You will eat too much, drink too much, spend too much and generally wallow in the frenzy of happy -- or unhappy -- consumerism that washes over us all.
'Tis the season of excess. But it doesn't have to be that way. You can cut down on your consumption with a little effort -- mostly mental effort. You needn't sacrifice quality, either. By devising creative ways to make do with less, you can make your holiday rituals richer, more meaningful and more distinctly your own, whether that means Norman Rockwell or Robert Motherwell.
Before you say bah! humbug, consider the following ideas:
* Buy a living Christmas tree, a dwarf Alberta spruce in a wooden container on wheels. You can wheel it in every Christmas and wheel it out again for the rest of the year. Think of the tree as a sort of pet. It can stay indoors for only 10 days, but it can spend a few days on either end of the porch. If your children are loathe to part with it so soon, bill it as the birds' turn. Help your children decorate the tree with birdseed ornaments and sing a carol to the birds as you wheel it outside. Be sure to get instructions on care and feeding when you buy the tree so that it really does survive.
* Buy a living Christmas tree and plant it in your yard after the holidays. Dig the hole before the ground freezes. If your yard is big enough, and if you stay put for a while, you can develop a little Christmas grove, full of memories of happy holidays past. Decorate these outdoor trees for the birds every year.
* Buy a grapevine wreath from a garden store. This is a plain circlet of dried vines. Hang it on the door (OK, hang it wherever you like) and decorate it with leaves or berries or cones or little gold stars or anything that appeals to you. Keep the wreath up all year round, and change its "clothes" with the seasons or with your mood.
* Decorate your home with candles, cut branches, gourds, cones, berries, fruit and other products that don't come in 40 layers of packaging. Eat your decorations or compost them when the time comes.
* Make decorations for the tree. Tie bows of red ribbon on the branches, then save them for next year. String popcorn and cranberries, then compost them after Christmas. Trim an orange with patterns of cloves. Flip through the women's magazines at the checkout stand for ideas or invent your own. (Challenge your daughter or son with the turquoise hair and the 17 earrings to come up with something different.)
* Wrap gifts in brown paper grocery bags and paint or decorate them distinctively (dare I mention leaves, berries and cones?). Or save and reuse old wrapping paper and ribbon. Or buy a dozen inexpensive bandannas and wrap presents in these. Everyone can use another bandanna.
* Give green gifts: a bird feeder and some birdseed, a hummingbird feeder, a worm bin, a set of herbs in windowsill pots, an unusual bird house, a bat house, flannel sheets, a gizmo to light charcoal without lighter fluid, a push mower, forced bulbs in a pretty pot. Real Goods Trading Corp. (800-762-7325) and Seventh Generation (800-456-1177) are two mail-order outfits that have many ideas for green holiday gifts.
* Give of your time: piano lessons, knitting lessons, dog walking, baby-sitting, a tune-up, leaf raking, bulb planting, catered (by you) meals. Services like these are especially good for elderly relatives who don't need more stuff but need help getting stuff done. You can draw coupons for these services to have something to wrap.
* Give gift certificates: a massage, a facial, theater tickets, a membership to the zoo or children's museum.
* Buy homey gifts that people need: an apron, slippers, gloves, gardening gloves.
* Make presents: bake cookies, bake granola, knit a sweater, frame a photograph, frame a child's piece of art, make chutney, build a doll house.
* Assemble presents: collect recipes to make a family cookbook; put together a small sewing kit; devise a car kit, including a tire gauge, a flashlight, pen and paper, Band-aids and some duct tape; make a first-aid kit; give a pizza pan, a lump of homemade dough and some recipes for easy, gourmet pizzas; put all your family pictures that have been languishing in boxes into an album.
(Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to the Household Environmentalist -- on recycled paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- and send it to Susan McGrath at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)