Five Ways to Make Your Holiday Season More Meaningful

15/12/2014 04:28 GMT | Updated 13/02/2015 10:59 GMT

The holiday season always brings out the best in people. Perhaps the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg releases endorphins. Maybe the cold weather (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) invigorates our deepest being; or perhaps it's simply that the holiday season represents the one time of year where you cannot be totally selfish. Societal norms and cultural customs require you to think of others - whether you are shopping for gifts or cooking for friends and family, the holiday season is bigger than just you.

This year, the holiday season is particular important. For much of the world, 2014 was trying a year. Words like "racism", "starvation", "radicalisation", "Ebola", "terrorism", "poverty", "rape", "unemployment" dominated global headlines. We witnessed a lot of pain, and many confronted unfathomable devastation. There was and is so much sadness.

As we pause to decorate the Christmas tree, light the Menorah, sit down for a family meal, and toast a new year, we should celebrate our survival, our resilience. But we also have the opportunity to make the season bigger and more impactful than in past years. We've emerged stronger for having lived through 2014; why not emerge more selfless too?

Here are five ways you can start making your holidays more impactful for you, your loved ones, and indeed the world.

1. Forget the typical gift certificate. We all have someone who is hard to shop for. We know the general things they like but have no idea what they want or need; the easy solution has always been to give them a gift certificate from their favourite store. This year, why not give that person a license to empower someone else?

Consider giving them a Kiva Card. Through your generosity and thoughtfulness, they can choose which microenterprise around the world they want to support. When the loan is repaid, they can use those funds again to choose new enterprises to grow. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

If your intended recipient is passionate about education, why not buy them credit at Donors Choose? They can browse and then fund from thousands of school projects that teachers across the United States need support for.

2. Know from whom and where you are buying. Not all products and retailers are the same; nor unfortunately, are their ethics. Before you take out your credit card, do a little research and ask a few questions to ensure you are supporting fair labour practices and ethical production. Prioritise coffee, wine, and chocolate with a Fairtrade certification. If you are buying jewellery, ensure the diamonds are Kimberly Process compliant. And perhaps most difficult, do a little digging on the clothing retailer you frequent before you buy that perfect cardigan for your sister or that seersucker button down for your brother. For starters, find out if your brand of choice is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

3. Shop for Change. Why not give a gift that benefits more than one person? Many retailers and products allocate a portion of their proceeds to charity. If you are shopping online, check out AmazonSmile, eBay Giving Works, or (Red) products. AmazonSmile will donate a portion of your purchase to your choice of one million charities around the world, and eBay Giving Works lets you bid on exciting offerings, while the sellers get to support their favourite charities. The (Red) campaign has dozens of partners, from Apple to beats by Dr. Dre to fatboy; a portion of your purchase will go to support the fight against HIV/AIDS.

4. Give time to those in need. The holiday season is all about spending time with people you love usually over decadent food and drink. Why not break with tradition this year: instead of gathering around the dinner table, why not combine forces and volunteer in your community? Maybe the chefs in the family can spend a few hours cooking for the homeless at a shelter? Or perhaps you and your friends can wrap presents for terminally ill children at the hospital? Maybe you and your siblings can spend the afternoon at an animal shelter and groom cats and dogs, so they are more appealing for adoption? The list of people and causes is endless, unfortunately, and getting involved with your friends and families will make the holidays special not only for you but those you are helping too.

5. Green your gifts. When many of us think of the holidays, we think of heaps of presents. We can't wait to tear off the beautiful wrapping paper to unveil the gift inside, and we ignore the mounting bags of trash the aftermath brings. This year, consider the planet a little more as you buy and decorate your gifts.

Prioritise gifts that come from local shops and artisans; not only will you be supporting members of your own community, but you will be helping to cut down on the impact of transportation on greenhouse emission and global warming.

When choosing a wrapping paper, avoid glossy foil or metallic papers as these types of papers are much harder to recycle or repurpose. Consider using "plantable" paper, such as Eden's Paper, this year; instead of throwing away the paper after unwrapping, the recipient can plant the paper and grow things like onions, chillies, or carrots. Not only are you reducing the waste, but it's like two gifts in one!

There are lots of ways you can spread more joy and be more selfless this holiday season. This list is by no means exhaustive, and the charities mentioned are not the only organisations doing exciting things to help their communities. Instead, this list is meant to help you to start thinking about how you can improve your holiday traditions and bring more happiness to those who haven't been so lucky in 2014. If we have learned anything this past year, it's that our actions matter, and small steps like buying green and gifting charity this holiday season will help us build toward a better 2015.

Happy Holidays!