CHAPTER 16: CELEBRATING HOLIDAYS AND OTHER SPECIAL OCCASIONS WITH NON-VEGANS
One of the concerns expressed by new vegans - or even those just dipping an exploratory toe or two into the waters - is wondering how to approach holidays and special occasions now that you are no longer eating many dishes that are customary at these gatherings, like the traditional turkey at Thanksgiving or the Christmas Eve recipe for Bûche de Noël that was passed down from your great grandmother. Even opting to forgo non-vegan birthday cake at a celebration can be fraught with landmines depending on whom you might upset.
It’s understandable that you may fear being perceived as rude or ruining the occasion simply for being vegan, especially as there can be a lot of overt and subtle pressure to stop “being difficult” and just go with the flow. While people can have some deeply entrenched notions about food and familial customs - especially around the holidays or other special occasions, when the expectations get so amplified - there is no reason why vegans can’t still celebrate without compromising our values and be able to be inclusive of everyone despite holding some different beliefs and practices. Holidays can make people feel obligated to maintain family traditions, as well as cultural norms, and not rock the boat. Introducing your new vegan way of living to the pressure cooker of family expectations and all the baggage that can come with it can be quite intimidating, especially for those who are new at it or are conflict averse. Even those of us who are old hats at this, though, can use a reminder that it is perfectly reasonable to maintain your values all year round and no one should reasonably expect you to drop them just because they are feeling inconvenienced, uncomfortable or threatened by your choices.
You as a Host Ifyou are hosting non-vegans for a holiday meal or another special occasion, being clear and confident that it is your prerogative to maintain the standards of your home is key to getting over roadblocks. Just as you wouldn’t be expected to serve non-kosher food to accommodate guests if you maintained a kosher home, nor should you be expected to drop your vegan standards to accommodate non-vegan guests in your home. Remind yourself - and remind others, if necessary - it is just one meal. People will do what they want to do outside of your home but you have every right to determine what is allowed in your home. That said, there are ways to be inclusive, friendly and welcoming while maintaining your vegan standards.
Some Suggestions • Be honest. If a guest asks if your event is going to be vegan, don’t hem and haw or be vague with your response. Just keep it to the exact subject – don’t say, “Yes, of course if I host it’s going to be vegan because I am not a heartless monster who allows people to feast on the corpses of innocent beings in my home!” – keeping it non-defensive and straightforward.
• If you are cooking, aim to accommodate less adventurous palates unless you know otherwise. Create recipes that are familiar to the holiday and have had good reviews. Now is not the time to fully reinvent Thanksgiving, but to bring out the best of it. Query your vegan foodie friends for some of their favorite crowd-pleasing recipes. Your meat- and-potatoes uncle is probably not going to be impressed by your nutritional yeast cheese sauce over tempeh so save that for a vegan potluck. (I’ll have seconds, though.) • Focus on the spirit of the holiday or special occasion, not the ways in which your celebration will be different. You will have great food and company: Is there really anything more than you need? Decorate, play games, have fun, get a little tipsy if that’s in your wheelhouse! • Stay positive. It is not the time for discussing the horrors of the dairy or egg industries, for example. • Reassure if necessary. Let’s be honest: There are some people who really need to be coddled to avoid tantrums or passive-aggressive digs. If someone is really concerned that not having Grandma Betty’s turducken is really going to ruin Thanksgiving or that they will be eating nothing but sprouts and raw turnips, nip it in the bud with the confident reassurance that your meal together will be lovely, delicious and perfect. If it is absolutely not an option to please people who insist on a strict adherence to traditions, consider inviting the family over just for a course you can keep vegan, for example, coffee and dessert. • If someone wants to bring vegan food to your soirée, let ‘em! If they need guidance, share some dependable recipes with them. If they don’t need help, no need to be a helicopter host. • If someone wants to bring non-vegan food and you are not okay with this, don’t be okay with it. How you handle being “not okay” is up to you but to me, it means speaking honestly that I don’t allow it in my home. Communicate that you’d still love the person’s company, though.
You as a Guest
In some ways, hosting is easier because you can control what goes on in your own home better. If someone else is hosting, there are still ways to keep it seamless and friendly from your experience as a vegan guest.
• Seek open communication. If you’ve been invited into someone’s home and it hasn’t been addressed about whether there will be vegan food for you, simply ask when you RSVP. I might use humor and call or message something like, “If I get low-blood sugar, I might disclose some family secrets and no one wants that. Can you tell me if there will be vegan food?” If the answer is yes, say thank you. If the answer is no, ask if you can bring something. Unless someone really has issues, they don’t want you sitting there with an empty plate, either.
• Offer ideas if requested. If the host would like there to be vegan food for you but doesn’t know how to do it - this is more common than you might think - you can offer to bring food or suggest restaurants that have an option for you and offer to bring it yourself to make things easier on the host. The idea is to try to make it as easy and friendly as possible to minimize opportunities for misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
If Dining Out
Check out our section on dining out as a vegan for the best tips on how to do this, but the main thing is to just make sure you can eat. Kind of obvious, I know. If there aren’t clear items designated as vegan on the menu, this may mean you’ll have to call the restaurant ahead of time to speak to someone who is very knowledgeable about what can be done in the kitchen, like a manager. Don’t forget that the restaurants want your party’s business and they are aware if not everyone can eat, a different restaurant will be chosen.
Just as with so many other aspects of being a new vegan during the holidays or other special occasions, so much comes down to self-kindness, understanding your boundaries and showing consideration for others. Planning, being resourceful, adaptive and creative are also helpful. It’s not rocket science or even social science but it can be a tricky balancing act at first. As with so much in life, the more you practice it, the more it will be natural for you.