Monstrous Festive: How Going Vegan Ruins Christmas Forever
On Christmas Day 1889, playwright and notorious vegetarian crank George Bernard Shaw set off on a bracing solitary walk from Broadstairs to Margate in the south-east of England, finding nothing to please him anywhere he ventured. Especially the food.
…[T]he ozone had made me so ragingly hungry that I burst from the train and ran all the way to Nuckell’s Place, where, to my unspeakable horror and loathing, they triumphantly brought me up a turkey with sausages. “Surely, sir,” they said, as if remonstrating with me for some exhibition of depravity, “surely you eat meat on Christmas Day.” “I tell you,” I screamed, “that I never eat meat.” “Not even a little gravy, sir? I think it would do you good.” I put a fearful constraint on myself, and politely refused. Yet they came up again, as fresh as paint, with a discolored mess of suet scorched in flaming brandy; and when I conveyed to them, as considerately as I could, that I thought the distinction between suet and meat, burnt brandy and spirits, too fine to be worth insisting on, they evidently regarded me as hardly reasonable. There can be no doubt that the people here are mentally enfeebled. The keen air causes such rapid waste of tissue that they dare not add to it by thinking.
Kindred spirits as Bernard Shaw and I (a longtime vegetarian) must be, I can see why the waiters found him insufferable. The playwright (then a music and theater critic for The Star) described the incessant caroling in the streets of London as “the sort of thing that breaks my peace and destroys my good will towards men,” racket and commotion he actually felt compelled to flee from, whereas I would have found such carryings-on delightfully festive. I have never spent a Christmas on my own, and I can’t imagine ever wanting to.
I have always found joy in food and family, for mine is a clan of cooks and snugglers. The German word Gemütlichkeit is the best I’ve found to characterize the holiday celebrations of my childhood. It indicates a feeling of cozy cheerful belonging, and I could go on for pages reminiscing about the crisp resin-scented air of the local Christmas tree farm, the blow-mold lawn Nativity and the old-school bubble lights, the gag-gifts-turned-treasured-tree-ornaments and the Ray Conniff Singers on the stereo, the hundreds of figurines (collected over the decades) in my grandmother’s “Snowman Village.”
We looked forward to the food as much as we did the decorating and the rituals, of course. Meatball sandwiches with fresh-baked rolls on Christmas Eve were gemütlich. Eggnog (with a splash of the rum my father kept for this reason only) was gemütlich. Scrapple and scrambled eggs on Christmas morning was gemütlich. The pizzelles my grandfather made with milk and butter on an antique griddle were gemütlich. Even when I stopped eating animals, the pieces of their bodies on our table still represented Gemütlichkeit — these dishes were prepared with a great deal of love, no matter the ingredients — though that old coziness was now tainted with a nagging unease.
Going vegan meant consciously feeling that unease for the first time. As an ovo-lacto-vegetarian, you don’t want to think too critically about animal agriculture because you are probably addicted to cheese. But I knew better now, and when we sat down to dinner that first December I felt no cravings for my old favorites. How could I take a helping of my grandmother’s mashed potato bake (loaded with milk, butter, and cream cheese) knowing that cows are forcibly inseminated, their babies taken away from them to provide the milk we’re told by the dairy industry is good for our bones? How could I enjoy an omelet or a glass of eggnog knowing that hundreds of millions of “useless” male chicks are tossed into industrial macerators each year? How could I savor any of this food knowing how animal agriculture is devastating the environment?
My family, bless them, accommodated my conscience upgrade — my mother ordered roasted veggie and hummus wraps for the Christmas Eve sandwich tray, my father made lasagna with vegan ricotta and stocked the fridge with Soy Nog — but no one seemed remotely curious about my reasoning. They didn’t ask because they didn’t want to know.
When you go vegan the thing that haunts you most, after the animal cruelty, is the knowledge that your family and friends don’t see what you see because they don’t want to see it. Intelligence is irrelevant; the blockage is psychological. You’re stuck inside the Meatrix until the moment you see you’re stuck. Prior to that moment of revelation, all moral discrepancies are filed under “inviolable facts of life.” You won’t see the falseness under the festivity at this time of year.
Most traditions are self justifying, but when you actually accord this subject the careful thought it deserves, “we eat animals because we’ve always eaten animals” sounds like absolute rubbish. Who says you require a dead bird on the table to nourish your family? The poultry industry, that’s who. Who says you need a down jacket or comforter to feel warm and safe? The down industry. A vegan believes that in a righteous world — the sort of world we sing about at Christmastime — the goose wears her own feathers for the rest of her natural-born life, the turkey wanders through the woods unmolested, and the cow grazes in green fields with her baby at her side. In that kinder world the fox won’t die by anal electrocution so her flawless pelt can line your hipster deerstalker cap. A compassionate diet hasn’t been an option for most people throughout history, but nowadays in many parts of the world there are cruelty-free versions of anything you could ever need or want. This is the direction in which our species must evolve if we are to survive on this planet.
Say any of this to a partyful of inveterate carnists, though, and you will understand why Bernard Shaw so assiduously avoided human company. You face hostility and derision, or at best you will be dismissed with illogical excuses before someone else awkwardly changes the subject.
Appeal to their Christian mercy, and you will fare no better. The vast majority of self-proclaimed “Christians” allow heinously underpaid and maltreated slaughterhouse workers to kill their (terrified, defenseless) dinner for them, saying Grace as if they had nothing at all to do with any cruelty or exploitation. “Christians” tell us they believe in the golden rule and the “right to life,” that they pray for a more loving world, but they do not act in kind. I listen to the favorite carols of my childhood, “O Holy Night” and “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” — this sublime and so-called sacred music — and I can’t help thinking that these are songs written by flesh eaters for flesh eaters to sing and listen to, songs for flesh eaters to feel comforted by. And then I think, what right have we to feel safe and loved so long as we are playing a starring role in some-body else’s nightmare?
I’ve no doubt some people think I’ve become too sensitive, overwrought, pedantic even, but this is what the resolution of culturally-supported cognitive dissonance looks like from the outside. You may take a gourmand’s delight in the concept of a “turducken” — the body of a chicken inside the body of a duck inside the body of a turkey — but to me your enthusiasm is monstrous. When a friend calls her offspring “my little turkey” on social media, I can’t help thinking you aren’t going to roast and eat your baby, are you? Other friends denounce big-game hunters in one post and swoon for Christmas-morning sausage and frittata in another, because some animals are noble and beautiful and others warrant no pity since they’re only bred for human consumption. I go to midnight Mass (because it makes my mother happy) and I scoff when the priest talks of peace on earth because I can guess he swoons for factory-farmed pig’s-flesh, too; and if anybody ever pointed out that Jesus was associated with the Ebionites and the Essenes and thus was quite possibly vegetarian himself, that priest almost certainly replied with the usual cherry-picking from a hopelessly corrupted scripture.
This critical ticker-tape is inevitable and ongoing, but most of the time it isn’t as depressing as it sounds; I never wish I could un-see or un-comprehend, though it’s true many old pleasures are spoiled for good. These days I listen to holiday albums like the Arbor Christmas Compilations, songs about overconsumption, global warming, and lying to your kids about Santa Claus. I’d rather flirt with humbuggery than cling to my old delusions.
In truth, though, going vegan ruined Christmas in the same way the Grinch “stole” it in the classic Dr. Seuss storybook — which is to say, not at all. I just have to take my Gemütlichkeit wherever I can still find it. I revel in the tiniest bright spots— someone tells me the cookies I brought to the potluck are delicious and can they have the recipe; a character in Christmas in Connecticut declares (in earnest), “Nobody needs a mink coat but the mink!” I bake gingerbread, apple bundt cake, and oatmeal raisin cookies out of The Joy of Vegan Baking, plus veganized versions of my grandmother’s signature dishes like rice pudding and onion pie. I wrap gifts with vintage wrapping paper inherited from my grandparents or reusable bags I’ve sewn myself from holiday novelty prints. I make gag gifts for my sister and try not to buy presents made in sweatshops. I am still all about the cocoa and the hot apple cider, the snowmen (real and decorative) and the “Santa’s Workshop, keep out under penalty of coal” sign on my bedroom door; the only difference is that I don’t want anyone else to suffer for my comfort.
What is essential is still here: reminiscing over tree ornaments, the extended family coming over for a buffet dinner on Christmas Eve (the annual group photo posted straight to Facebook), snuggling up for “It’s a Wonderful Life” after everyone’s gone home. Telling my family I love them, getting misty-eyed so frequently that my sister calls me a sap. Our grandparents aren’t here anymore, but they loved us so much that we’ll find warmth in the afterglow for the rest of our lives.
I know that for some readers, nothing I could write will convince them that pigs, chickens, cows, fishes, and other “edible” creatures deserve to be treated with the same kindness as their dogs and cats. But I bet you can agree you’d do anything for your family, wouldn’t you? To this end, I have two points to make. First, the purpose of sitting down to a big holiday dinner is love and connection. It doesn’t actually matter what you’re eating, so you might as well make a new tradition of plant-based foods that will keep you hale and healthy for as many winter holidays as possible. Your family doesn’t need the dead turkey or blue cheese dip; they need you, alive and well.
Secondly, no reasonable person can deny that we are trashing this planet. You won’t live to meet your many-times-great-grandchildren, but you want them to be able to sit down to these cozy family dinners too, don’t you? Because if we all keep living as we are, we’re guaranteeing our remote descendants will spend each Christmas in some version of an apocalyptic wasteland. If you’re tempted to dismiss this statement as mere hysteria, I dare you to spend just five minutes Googling the environmental ramifications of animal agriculture.
After thirty-seven Christmases, I have finally realized the downside of Gemütlichkeit: this warm sweet feeling of belonging can lull us into caring only for the safety and comfort of ourselves and our own kin. “Oh, sure, we made a tax-deductible donation to some international relief organization. We do care,” you may say; but tell me so with lips glistening with bacon fat, and I will not believe you. In a kinder, safer world, doing right by every person—human and otherwise—would be what Christmas is all about.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and a book of practical philosophy called Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People. A certified vegan lifestyle coach, she is currently working on a book about veganism and creativity. If you liked this post, you can subscribe for updates (and to thank you, you’ll get a link to two free sample chapters from Life Without Envy).