Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Hark! The Herald Vegans Sing

If there's one time of the year where vegans struggle more than any other to remain faithful to their cause, it's Christmas. Ever since Ebenezer Scrooge sent a turkey to Bob Cratchet in the 1843 Charles Dickens story 'A Christmas Carol', so the big bird has become a traditional feature of the Christmas feast. Over the years our typical celebrations have become associated with the over-consumption of chocolate, cheese, meats, cakes and alcohol, and from a traditionalist's point of view, there is no room for veganism in this practice.

Now before anyone gets defensive about that first statement, I am aware that the majority of Vegans are completely content in their disposition and are not at all tempted by the carnivorous way of life; I consider myself to be within this bracket. There are those however, that for whatever reason struggle to eat conscientiously, and the mere allure of the Christmas period is enough to break their spirit.

I can remember what it was like during my first Christmas as a vegetarian, surrounded by eleven other members of my family, all of whom were avid meat eaters and not one that understood why I didn't want to eat any myself. The pressure to be 'normal' and accept a few slices of turkey were all too present during the meal, when I was scrutinized for my 'pathetic' vegetarian alternative.

I remember the fake, over-the-top noises of pleasure that family members made, trying to emphasize the foods I was missing. I remember my siblings 'almost accidentally' putting meat on my plate, only to exclaim loudly to a sea of muffled laughter, 'Oh I'm sorry, you're not eating any of the delicious food this year, are you?', putting it smugly on their own mountainous piles and laughing at my 'loss'. Little did they know that I wasn't in the least bit affected by their jesting, and I didn't feel in the slightest bit as if I was missing out on anything.

Almost nine years later, my family have somewhat given up on trying to make me feel as if my vegan alternative is inadequate. Instead they're rather interested to know what it is I'm having, what it's made from, and if they can try a little bit themselves!

I am very lucky in that my family are now very supportive of my choices, however, there are all too many vegans out there that aren't as privileged. As I said before, Christmas can be a tricky time of the year for those vegans/vegetarians that have either only recently started out, or who are not as sure about their stance as others.

For those that are facing their first Christmas 'meat-free', December is probably beginning to feel like a nightmare waiting to happen. You may be worried about the pressures your family and friends may place on you, intentional or not, to step away from your morals and just 'enjoy yourself'. You may start fretting that you'll receive gifts you cannot use and have to fake gratitude when inside you're feeling terrible. Perhaps you're beginning to feel miserable at the idea of having to read handfuls of ingredients lists just to find something edible to enjoy, while everyone else is being carelessly gluttonous and eating anything in sight.

All I can say is DO NOT PANIC!. You are one of thousands that have been through the same situation, and one of the thousands that will make it into 2012 feeling exhilarated with your choices. Yes it is sometimes difficult, yes it may be awkward, and my goodness it'll be tedious answering the 'why?' questions every few minutes, but I can assure you, it will be worth it.

So here are my top tips for having the best Vegan Christmas:

Be Prepared.
I'm sure you know that in many incidences, you cannot just walk into a restaurant and expect a fully prepared, vegan feast. We vegans know that many places just aren't conscientious enough to consider our feelings or our bellies. So treat Christmas in exactly the same way. Don't wait until you get an awkward moment when the host cannot find anything for you to eat, and you're made to sit there and watch everyone else devour their snacks. Bring your own! Stockpile crisps, frozen foods, olives, cheeses, chocolate, cakes, fake meats etc.. If you can reach for a vegan alternative at any moment, you are far less likely to cave into temptation. Ultimately, you may even inflict some jealousy onto others when they see the yummy food you've brought for yourself.

Be Firm but Polite
One thing you don't want to do at Christmas, is incite a family feud.  I can remember trying to explain my ethical and moral reasonings for not eating turkey during my first vegetarian Christmas, and it did not work at all. All it did was infuriate me when their responses were 'but it's yummy', and 'you can't have Christmas without a turkey'. Er, yes you can, as I have so easily demonstrated these past 9 years.
The trick is to be firm but polite. If someone offers you a non-vegan food, just decline the offer. If they ask why, just say that you don't wish to have any. You don't have to get into a discussion about the unethical ways of farming, or your moral views of slaughter. These sorts of conversation should be reserved for another time. Obviously, if there is a genuine non-judgmental interest, and you feel comfortable talking about it, then go ahead. I'm just saying that you are not obligated to argue your stance every time you turn down a biscuit. There are just some people that you will not be able to convince, so don't stress yourself out trying to change the world on December 25th.

Be Tactful
Aside from the food, Christmas can be a nightmare for those vegans that cannot be sure their family have understood their lifestyle completely. Getting boxes of chocolate biscuits in your stocking, only for your mum to proclaim 'they're vegan aren't they?' can be rather awkward and embarrassing for some. One way to rectify this is by offering your family members suggestions. I'm sure there's no harm in hinting at certain brands and/or websites to help them make the right choices. Sometimes it can be difficult for someone who is uneducated on the 'dos' and 'don'ts' of veganism, to know where to search and what to look for. If you're proactive with your ideas, it makes it easier on them and more valuable for you.
   Obviously, there will be times when a distant relative or your slightly-confused gran will forget altogether, and you'll find a large lump of cheese with your name on it. This is when you'll have to decide the most tactful way of dealing with the situation. I would have thought the easiest option would be to say thank you and move on as quickly as possible. It's far less embarrassing to drop a text a couple of weeks later mentioning the fact that you've 'just noticed' the milk ingredients in the bar of Dairy Milk chocolate they gave you.

Be Proactive 
There's always the worry that at some point during the festive day, you're mum will forget to put your vegan option in the oven, or your dad will think it appropriate to cook your roast potatoes in the turkey fat. Turkey's vegan, isn't it? So how can you prevent this? Get involved! Help with the preparation of the dinner, make sure you take responsibility for your own food so that you have something to look forward to when you set down to gorge on the roast.

Ultimately, do not stress yourself out, and make sure you have fun! This year will be my third vegan Christmas and I am so excited. This will be the second year that our family's yule log and mince pies have been vegan, and now my sister bakes them dairy free and egg free without even asking me!

If you make veganism a problem for yourself, how can your family see it any other way? If you embrace your lifestyle and are well prepared for the celebrations, your family will follow suit.

Enjoy a guilt free festive season, and have a very merry Christmas!