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The holiday season can be especially hard when you’re a new vegan, and sometimes even a bit of a challenge for seasoned vegans as well, but it doesn’t have to be.
We have many posts in which we’ve talked about tips and the practical aspects of navigating the holiday season as a vegan, and we have a full video on it in one of the modules in The Roadmap. Today though, I thought I would give you a bit of support, not in culinary and meal planning terms, but in the emotional and relationship side of things so that you can have the most joyful time this holiday season no matter how you eat, or how differently you do so when compared to your family members and friends.
Is spending the Holiday Season, Christmas or Thanksgiving Hard as a Vegan?
The answer to this question will vary based on how you take on a change like going vegan. Although it can take some trial and error and especially time, until you and everyone in the family gets used to your new way of eating, it can be helpful to know that first reactions won’t be permanent, and that everything gets easier once our loved ones get used to the idea that we eat differently.
When Carlos and I spent our first holiday season after going vegan on our own (because we lived so far away from family), it was simple enough in the vegan department. I remember that when we first started sharing this time of year with new friends, things were also easy enough. We would bring some vegan dishes that everyone could share, or we would host a vegan dinner at home with so much delicious food that everyone (omnivores and vegans alike loved it).
Spending the holidays with friends and family who had known us prior to going vegan was a bit more challenging. I remember having to answer lots of questions the first holiday season we spent with family members. I remember that itch to jump in and set the record straight when people told myths about animal agriculture, and knowing I also didn’t feel comfortable getting on that soap box. I remember people showing me their plates filled with turkey or ham and saying “look at what you’re missing”. I remember missing being a part of the communal preparation of some of the traditional holiday dishes, which surprise surprise, was always my favorite part about the holidays.
I also remember the joy of starting new traditions. The joy of seeing my friends get together over our table and ooh and ahh over vegan recipes that I was just starting to create. I remember the first time I mastered that pumpkin pie, or that vegan roast with mushroom gravy. I remember when I realized that the part I had always loved, of spending the entire day in the kitchen (yes, I know this might just be me!), was still possible with vegan dishes. With every passing year I felt more and more comfortable answering questions, and the jokes and comments started dying out until they were actually quite rare. I remember how being vegan reminded me of how food is just the excuse to get together, it isn’t what this time of year is really all about. I remember how I soon realized that all my favorite Christmas foods could easily be veganized and because they looked so familiar to people, our family started enjoying them too. All that was needed was time, time for us to practice and time for our loved ones to get used to change.
Pep Talk: A Few Reminders and Tips for New Vegans during the Holidays
Remember any new change comes with steps back…
If you ate something that wasn’t vegan, if you answered a question in a way you later regretted, if you felt a little uncomfortable standing out at the office party, at Thanksgiving or during any gathering. If you got emotional after a family member said something to you. If your delicious dinner didn’t turn out perfectly the first time, the pumpkin pie burnt and the pecan pie overflowed in the oven. Remember all of that is part of the journey and it will get easier and easier with every passing day.
Remember any new change takes practice…
Don’t see every challenge or question that comes your way as a test. See it as what it is: the way we learn! We tend to forget just how much we learn from those moments in which we didn’t react according to plan, or we didn’t know what to do in a certain social situation. These moments were the ones that taught me the most, so look at them straight in the eye and say “ok, bring it!”. Everything, from cooking familiar meals, to shopping, to planning, to talking about this way of eating with people who ask you questions, everything takes practice. Just like when you learn to play a musical instrument, or you are trained at a new job, or you take up tennis or surfing. It’s practice that will make things easier and time will give you all those learning opportunities.
Remember the holidays are a special time of year for many people, this can sometimes elevate people’s reactions to your change…
For many people the holidays are an emotional time. This time of year is tied to past memories of family traditions, loved ones who are no longer here, and many of these holiday rituals are tied with food. This can make unsupportive (or not yet supportive) friends or family have strong reactions to you wanting to make the vegan version of a sweet potato casserole. The first secret to countering this is to be aware that their reaction is not about you, it has to do with that fear of change. The second secret is to remember you can fill family time with a whole bunch of new traditions. This will make relatives feel as though you’re not rejecting them or the traditions you have as a family, your plate simply looks a bit differently. Try to keep the spotlight off the plate. One of the biggest tips I can give you is that although veganism is about so much more than the food that fills your plate, on days like the Holidays where the plate is a symbol of many other things for people (and everyone has fantasies and expectations of what the day will look like), you do see your veganism as just a different way to eat, as a slightly different plate, and find the connectors to those around you. Hobbies, stories, memories, what else is going on in your life. Start there as a new vegan, it’s when people are relaxed about your presence that their minds are more open to the sides of you they might not fully understand yet.
Remember you don’t have to be the world’s number one expert on veganism…
Don’t stress out about not answering specific questions in the best way, don’t worry about not knowing everything about nutrition or ecology or farming practices or food policy. You’re making this change and you have your own reasons for doing so. This is no one’s business but your own unless you wish to share it. Share your story with kindness, and begin by saying: “I’m not an expert, and I’m trying to figure this whole thing out myself and doing the best I can”.
Remember that you can make anything vegan and bring something along…
Always offer to bring a vegan dish or two to a dinner party or gathering. Talk about this with whoever is hosting so that it goes with their menu. Answer any questions they might have. Most hosts will actually want you to have plenty of options to eat at their holiday table and they’ll have questions about ingredients. Answer and always follow that up with “I’ll be happy to help, or I’ll be happy to bring that dish for everyone”.
Remember most people will come around when they see you’ve stuck with it…
In my experience the first few months or the first one or two holiday seasons are the hardest because people are still waiting for you to go back to old habits. Once people see that you’ve stuck with it, and you’ve shown them that tradition will be kept in place and will simply include the swapping of some ingredients, people will begin to wrap their heads around it and begin to respect this as the default (or at least they’ll learn to keep their objections to themselves). Just like they might have a relative with celiac disease, or a relative who simply won’t eat broccoli no matter how much cheese is poured on top, they will soon simply take your being vegan as a given and plan festivities that include this and/or will ask for your help so you have plenty to eat too.
Remember that when all else fails, support might come from sources other than your closest family members…
Support might come from friends or co-workers, even non-vegan friends or co-workers. Remember you can host your own holiday meals aside from the ones you spend with family, and begin new traditions with people you feel safe and comfortable with and that respect your choices.
Remember that you don’t have to work yourself to the point of exhaustion, cooking and planning meals so elaborate, in order to convince others that vegan food is delicious…
Even simple vegan dishes are yummy and can have a holiday twist to them, and you don’t have a moral obligation to be the voice for all vegans or the best home chef in the world. Do what you can and what you have time for and this can include store-bought items to bring along, like some of those famous and scrumptious vegan holiday roasts.
Remember that it’s normal to crave old familiar foods…
Going vegan wasn’t the flipping of a switch for me (and I’m pretty sure Carlos would say the same). I still remember my recipe for roast turkey, which Carlos’s mom still makes every year and remember the taste and texture. I also know that I don’t see it as an option anymore because I wouldn’t feel happy eating it. It’s normal to crave familiar foods that were part of many holiday meals before you went vegan. Try to take along your favorites in their vegan versions so that you never feel deprived and know that all of us vegans have caved at some point, especially in the beginning, and have had something that wasn’t vegan. This isn’t the end of the world. You dust yourself off and keep on going afterwards.
Remember that the pressure is not on you…
We sometimes go to these parties or gatherings feeling pressure or stress, especially that first holiday season as a vegan. Remember that this feeling is yours. It’s very likely that most people won’t even remember your dietary habits and they will catch up once they see your plate. They might ask you a question or two out of curiosity and move on. It’s simply not true that our relatives have planned out this mission to shine the spotlight on us. People are often legitimately curious, and people are usually thinking about their own struggles and challenges, wondering if you’re thinking about theirs. This is always a huge and helpful reminder to me, that most people are also worrying, but it of course isn’t about me or my plate of food.
When it comes to the size of our bodies, the way we look, the way we eat, or our life choices, something happens when we're surrounded by people who love us, where the invisible adult line called independence is blurred, wiped out somehow, and all topics seem like fair game. One thing I like to remember, even though it’s hard when you’re surprised by comments that come while you’re surrounded by relatives (who themselves have been surrounded by alcohol), is that often comments are just slips that would have come out differently on a different day, or comments come from a place of love, concern and worry, or from legitimate curiosity. Although I’m all for teaching and explaining what I know, and I’m usually an open book, I also often have to remind myself to set boundaries when people are being excessively pushy or invasive. Talks around the table can often happen around vegan topics, or have centered around commenting on people's bodies, how they eat, how they need to be eating more, or not have a second helping, how the way they eat is wrong, or perfectly right and all other ways completely incorrect.
It also expands beyond food. We've had distant relatives ask why we don't have kids, and others asking those with one kid when they plan on having the second, or the third. With time, I’ve realized a couple of things, once the topic at hand has been resolved within yourself, once you’ve had time to wrap your head around your choices and you’ve gained some confidence, and you’ve done any grieving of the choices not taken that had to be grieved, external comments are taken in differently (this is great news for your future self if you’ve been struggling). In the meantime, boundaries are helpful and in my opinion they can come in a few different ways (some more helpful than others depending on the source of the comment or question). They can come in the form of simply brushing it off (with a joke, by quickly changing the subject, by asking questions back), or by excusing yourself for a minute or putting a pin in it and mingling while you gather your thoughts, by trying to really understand where the other person is coming from and why they’re saying that or asking those questions (this helps lower the volume of what you think is behind the question, oftentimes revealing a much more benign and curious question that will produce more comfortable conversations. It can come from a firm boundary of topics that are off the table with certain people. Most of the time though, the two strategies that I find most helpful are these:
- Explaining why you’ve set a boundary and getting very honest about how these conversations with this person about this particular topic make you feel. People will respect the boundary more if they understand it.
- Have the uncomfortable conversation and know that even if you make mistakes, even if you don’t win every argument, even if you felt tiny and the conversation too big, you can then set a boundary within yourself of what you’re willing to learn from and take in, and what you get to peel off and not internalize. Easier said than done when your feelings are hurt, but hurt feelings have taught me so much! They’ve taught me about things I still need to work on, they’ve let me know when in fact I have been wrong, they’ve let me know of people I don’t talk about certain issues with, they’ve let me know if the relationship I have with someone needs a bit of shaking up and shifting. So don’t be afraid, to make mistakes, to have the tough conversations, go into every one with an open mind so you can really hear what the other person is saying, because there is always some common ground, even in disagreements, and you can greet yourself with tons of self compassion and kindness if things don’t go as planned, internalizing what can make you grow, and leaving the rest.
Remember to focus on what’s really important and what isn’t
It’s funny how the craziness of the holidays can take us out of looking at the bigger picture. This time of year many people will lack of resources to travel and be together, some due to war or political troubles, some due to illness or the passing of loved ones. Having something you disagree with, even when it is based on your value systems, like eating and shopping differently from the people around you is not a big deal. Eating food that is a little different but having a lovely and delicious plate of food in front of you is a blessing. When the arguments we might sometimes have with loved ones have to do with what butter the apple pie was made with, we can check ourselves and notice that in the grand scheme of things, it’s so not important, even when it’s a change that means a lot to us. How having the choice to make food choices at all is wonderful, and it’s precisely why it is important that those of us who can, do. It’s why I’m vegan, I’m happy to do it for someone who can’t do it as easily, due to financial restraints, lack of food security, a disability or chronic illness that makes this change harder, etc.
Remembering how lucky we are to be among loved ones and with food on the table, helps bring everything else into perspective. To me there’s nothing that gratitude won’t make a little easier.
Remember to have fun and enjoy this time of year…
Have fun with it, enjoy the food, share some laughs, add new holiday traditions that have nothing to do with food, things like watching a funny holiday movie, or decorating ornaments, going ice skating, playing a game. Laugh off comments and laugh at yourself a bit too. The more confident you appear, the more you are enjoying the moment, the more everyone will relax and turn the spotlight back onto whoever got way too drunk and is saying something hilarious. Join in with some laughs. You are a valuable part of your family, your group of friends or your co-workers, and the food on your plate is not the reason why. Reassure everyone that you’ve found delicious and plenty of food to eat, that everything else looks yummy too and they need not worry, change the subject to a funny anecdote and people will relax while you do too.
I hope you have the most amazing Holiday season ahead!
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