Tis the season to be jolly! With its chilly weather and shorter days, December is the time for many religious and non-religious celebrations alike. Food is a central aspect of all celebrating. If you’re vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free you might not feel all that jolly at the thought of the approaching celebrations. Whether you have recently become a vegan or have been for a while, the difference in diet with your relatives can lead to all sorts of complications and stressful conversations when sitting at the dinner table. But celebrations are about joy and happiness, so here are three tips to help you navigate the holiday season and be a happy vegan all throughout the holiday season this year!
Remember that traditions are meant to evolve
Many of the traditional foods associated with December celebrations are made of animal products or gluten, and you may feel a little stressed at the idea of not being able to partake in the food related traditions. Well rejoice, traditions have always evolved and will continue to: there is still time for you to start a new food tradition in your family or adapt old ones to your needs!
Christmas is one of the major December celebrations in the United States. Originally a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, today many Christians and non-Christians alike celebrate Christmas. Eggnog, bûche de Noël, candy canes, Christmas cookies, roasted turkey or duck, mashed potatoes, apple pie, fruit cake… all these foods mean Christmas and yet they all emerged at different times in history and some more recently than you would think. According to historians, the tradition of fruitcakes began in the Middle Ages, whereas the French bûche de Noël, or Yule log, made its appearance as late as the 19th century1.
Many people in the U.S. also celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, celebrating the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Potato latkes are one of the traditional foods of Hanukkah. The tradition of latkes evolved over time. Originally, they weren’t even made out of potatoes! They were made from curd cheese. During the mid-1800s, Eastern Europe experienced a series of crop failures. People needed food, so they started planting potatoes, which were cheaper and easier to grow. Widely available and affordable, potatoes became the ingredient of choice for latkes2.
Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or another December celebration, the foods we have come to think of as the most traditional probably have either drastically changed since they were first invented and made, or have emerged more recently than we would think. So you don’t have to stay stuck in the past!
Make sure you have food to eat during the celebrations
While the kinds of food we eat have changed over the course of history, one tradition seems to have remained the same for as long as historians can trace back: sharing food during celebrations. The foods that are shared may vary, traditions pop up during different centuries depending on taste, social norms and the availability of ingredients. Whatever the food, however, the act of sharing it remains a constant. Food is fitting for almost any type of human interaction: a date, a family reunion, a wedding, the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem, the birth of Jesus… As widely varying as all these instances are, food is at the center every time.
Food sustains our body; it is essential to our survival. (So is going to the restroom, and yet that is an activity we generally like doing alone!) The reason food is at the center of so many human interactions is because it is far more than a way to satisfy a biological need. We give symbolic meaning to foods: sharing meaningful foods makes us feel closer to our history and to each other. The act of eating the same foods together is powerful. That is why so much discomfort can emerge for you and your host if you sit down at a table where there isn’t a thing you can eat.
So don’t hesitate to let your hosts know in advance about your dietary needs! Depending on family traditions, bring a filling and delicious dish and maybe a dessert that you can share with others and that will guarantee you have something to eat. Or you can also offer to help with the cooking, bringing some vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free substitutes to help make some dishes. A lot of dishes can be adapted to dietary needs very easily with a couple of substitutions. This is not always obvious for someone who has never had to think about it. So lead the way! Be sure that there are foods you can eat and share because that is what celebration is all about.
Be ready to answer questions at the dinner table
Although veganism, gluten-free and different dietary needs are becoming more widespread, many people still don’t know much about these ways of eating. This means that when you don’t take a slice of meat at the table, a flood of questions might come your way. Most people with different dietary needs have probably already been confronted by this type of situation at least a few times. “Why did you become vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free?” or “how are you going to get enough protein?” are some of the most commons questions.
This can be overwhelming. You may not want to justify your life choices to others. However, these questions are probably more or less unavoidable. Some questions may feel judgmental, and while everyone might not approve of your choices, understanding is the first step to acceptance. Remember that most of the time these questions come from a genuine place of concern and care from your relatives. People just want to understand and connect even if it doesn’t always come across that way. Humans feel a deep need for kinship and connection, and seeing that you are making a different life choice might make people curious or concerned.
To survive the flood of questions, it might be helpful to think of a few short responses so that you can satisfy people’s curiosity without being overwhelmed or feeling defensive. There are many reasons to become vegan or gluten free, and coming up with short answers such as “Isn’t it wonderful that we all get to make our own choices!” or “I realized recently that every body has it’s own best mixture of foods and mine does well with my new choices” or “Just doing my part to end the water shortage issues in the world” may help you feel more prepared for the unavoidable questions. While some of your relatives might be a little resistant at first, they will most probably get used to the idea and come around eventually. Give a little thought to how you will answer potential questions concerning your dietary needs coming your way and you will probably have a much better time!
And don’t forget to enjoy the celebrations!
Lisa Darmet is a freelance writer, whose passions include, not only eating, but also food and cooking and their connections to health, culture and society. She is a graduate of Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, USA with a specialty in “Cultivating Resiliency and Food Justice Through Community”. She is truly a citizen of the world and continues to explore cultures through world travel