When I was growing up I remember Christmas Eve being a sacred time. My immediate family was not religious, and the only time I went to church was for weddings and funerals. Yet there were traditions in my childhood that were sacred, so special and so singular that the idea of them NOT happening in this way, with these people, was inconceivable to my childhood self.
We always had a day-long Christmas Eve celebration at my house with my grandparents and aunt and uncle. There were massive quantities of cold cuts , bread, cheese, and dessert and dinner was pretty routinely pasta with red sauce loaded with parmesan cheese. My grandmother would make tyropitas by folding cheese in phyllo dough and slathering it in butter. Sometimes she would make torta which included lard among its ingredients, but also potatoes, spices, and other amazing things that made it a rich savory treat.
We would open the presents one at a time so that everyone could see the gifts that were given, which could sometimes take most of the day given the pile that made its’ way under the tree. We would sing Christmas carols and my grandfather would bring out his violin to play along. There were some years that I played with him in my unpracticed version of violin playing that only haphazard focus in orchestra class once a week can produce. We would take a walk to look at Christmas lights to break up the bouts of eating and opening gifts. And we would have a marvelous time.
One of the common concerns I hear about being vegan is how to manage family traditions that involve (or are rooted in) food. I know people who have, unintentionally, hurt a parent or grandparent’s feelings because they now won’t eat the special meat sauce or roast pork that they used to love. Food is personal, and it’s hard for people to understand that, when we stop eating animals we are usually rejecting factory farming and saturated fat, not the love and care they share with us to us in their lasagna or roasts. But this is hard when food is a symbol of love, of togetherness, and of tradition.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for vegans to manage non-vegan family foods during the holidays, I do think there is a mindset that can help vegans, especially new vegans, navigate these times. Have compassion and gratitude. Actually, this is probably a good mindset to have for any family gathering. Family coming together can be joyful, but it can also be fraught with drama, ties to the past and more. Have compassion. Assume everyone is doing the best they know how. Show gratitude for the things you are given, be they gifts, affection, or just an acknowledgement that, though your eating and lifestyle habits might seem strange to them, you love your family and are grateful for their love in return.
Many years ago I would have assumed that becoming vegan would have been the largest disruption to my
family’s Christmas traditions. Even when I first became vegetarian I would make an exception for some meat at our holiday table. Since then my family has spread out all over the country, I have had two children, and life just isn’t the same as it was fifteen years ago; and my family’s veganism is the least of those changes. My parents and sister usually come stay with us overnight after a cross-country flight, rather than simply driving an hour to our house. We have made new traditions, such as opening one Christmas present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas day and decorating gingerbread cookies (something I didn’t really do growing up). I have adapted some of our family favorites into vegan dishes, like my vegan tyropitas and lasagna with tofu ricotta. We still walk around and check out the Christmas lights. What is most lovely to me is watching my kids get excited about these traditions that will become marked indelibly in their memories as “what we did for Christmas when we were kids.” Someday it will change again, and our traditions and rituals will adapt. Bu, be it the meat sauce of my childhood or the tofu ricotta of today, the important parts of tradition stays: family and togetherness.