It’s hard to reuse a chocolate advent calendar, but for Maya Levy it’s one of the best parts of Christmas.
“It’s really cool – it’s in the shape of a gingerbread house. You melt the chocolate and wrap it in some foil,” she said. Each chocolate parcel goes into tiny wooden drawers in the advent calendar – one element of the 24-year-old marine biologist’s attempts to have an entirely sustainable Christmas.
“We’ve been building up to it,” she said. “It does seem like a completely normal part of Christmas now.”
The Levy family are part of a resurgence in interest in self-sufficiency, fuelled by the pandemic. Many people who had time to spare in the spring lockdown turned to gardening and other means of practising self-sufficiency. Seed sales rocketed in April both in the UK and around the world, as did demand for keeping hens.
The organic farming charity WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) says it has had a 124% rise in the number of volunteers wanting to learn about growing their own food, while an Opinium survey for the green energy provider Pure Planet’s annual People and Power report showed that 56% of adults regularly try to lead a sustainable lifestyle.
“There is definitely growing interest in self-sufficiency and growing your own in the UK at the moment,” said Emma Robinson, a WWOOF trustee. “The pandemic has reminded people of the value of food sovereignty and sustainability, as well as the real, tangible health and wellbeing benefits of being outdoors and growing and cultivating plants.”
That translates into a bumper Christmas harvest for some, including Robinson. “I’m most excited about my brussels sprouts,” she said. “They’re the size of golf balls. And my Jerusalem artichokes are unbelievably sweet and delicious when straight from the ground – much nicer than anything I’ve bought from the shops.”
For Levy, the move to sustainability goes beyond just food: she uses shampoo bars and goes to zero-waste shops such as Full Circle in Cambridge, where her parents live – she moved back in after the pandemic began.
“It started when we got rid of clingfilm and started to buy reusable things,” she said. “Then lockdown happened and I started gardening.” And planning for Christmas: she now has leeks, brussels sprouts, carrots, as well as late greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers and beetroot.
Not quite everything is self-grown – the centrepiece will be a mushroom and vegan sausage wellington – but Levy has gone all out to do as much as possible. “We don’t buy any wrapping, we repurpose,” she said. “Like old delivery boxes or teabag boxes – turn them inside out and put a reusable ribbon on it. Or you can use a piece of cloth, like a square from an old scarf, and tie it in.”
There is a plastic tree which has been in the family for more than 10 years, and the decorations are heirlooms or traditional floristry – twigs and holly collected by Levy’s mother, Shane, and transformed into wreaths and other flourishes.
Self-sufficiency is not a new concept, although people of Levy’s generation may not be aware of some of the stereotypes about the movement. For older people, growing your own is indelibly linked to The Good Life, the 1970s TV sitcom starring Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers, and their struggles to grow crops and raise chickens and pigs and to make their own clothes.
The series is believed to have been inspired by John Seymour, the godfather of self-sufficiency. He died in 2004, but his friend William Sutherland has continued the school they set up.
Sutherland said: “John fought through the war in the Burma campaign and had a hellish war. Afterwards he swore he’d never work for anyone again, and he dossed around for a bit. Then he and his Australian wife, Sally, decided they would live a simple life growing their own food.”
Seymour’s first book on the subject – The Fat of the Land in 1961 – contained “various humorous disasters as they learned to do things”, Sutherland said. By the 1970s, Seymour had written several other books and was a leading light of the self-sufficiency movement, mostly due to The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency. The bible of the movement – one of the first of Dorling Kindersley’s illustrated reference books – is still in print, and Sutherland contributed an update in 2002.
“You get a royalty statement every six months, and this year the books have more than doubled in sales,” he said. “Mostly in the UK.”
“Sadly, it seems very difficult to persuade people to do the one thing which really would move the UK towards sustainability, and that’s composting your organic waste,” he added. “The UK puts about 10 million tons into landfill, generating millions of tons of methane.”
Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, believes the seed sales and extra activity on social media do point to a growth in interest. “I think there’s been a bit of an attitude shift in thinking this year. I’ve certainly been contacted by lots of people asking whether this year has been better for wildlife and insects because of the lockdown, and also asking: ‘How do we carry on doing this?’”
Goulson has bred his own Christmas turkeys for the last six years, in his two-acre garden.
“I’ve got a couple of Bourbon Reds,” he said. “They lay eggs and hatch out young ’uns, and we have one every Christmas and sell any extras.
“I built them a house but they refuse to go in it and they sit on top of it. Even when it’s snowing. They’re quite splendid beasts – part of the family now.”
Katy Fox has practised self-sufficiency with her husband for decades, and in a microholding – a 43 square metre garden – managed to grow enough fruit and vegetables to avoid buying most staples for a year.
“On the one hand, I’m quite optimistic about people being interested but then I went to the supermarket the other day,” she said. “I don’t go often, and it blew my mind. There were star-shaped washing-up sponges especially for Christmas – made out of oil and single-use plastic – and butter moulded in the shape of Santa and snowmen inside this hard plastic box. And someone had conceived this thing and produced it and spent the energy on it and wrapped it. And people are buying it.
“It seems like, to a lot of people, Christmas is a time of excess – spending, eating, drinking. And excess and sustainability don’t go together, by definition.”