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A family sitting around a holiday meal raising a glass.

How I Learned to Love the Holidays as a Vegan

When I went vegan, I felt better instantly.

By cutting out animal products, I experienced more happiness—making it easier to navigate social situations that challenged my veganism. However, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, with their vegan-unfriendly traditions, were still difficult for me.

I went vegan for the animals. After a year of living as a vegetarian, I could no longer deny the harm I felt I was causing by consuming animal products.

In addition to changing the way I ate, I eagerly overhauled my makeup kit and closet to eliminate non-vegan products that caused harm, such as leather boots, and lipsticks containing beeswax or carmine.

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Eating vegan can be challenging for a newbie (check out How to Live a Vegan Lifestyle), but by reading grocery labels and asking questions in restaurants, I eventually managed meals relatively easily.

Then, the holidays rolled around.

Navigating Thanksgiving: A Complicated Holiday

Up until the time I went vegan, I had spent nearly every Thanksgiving with my mother, who was not vegan or vegetarian. Thanksgiving can be a complicated holiday for many reasons: political, familial, and emotional.

When I first went vegan, Thanksgiving became complicated for me. Each year that I spent celebrating Thanksgiving with my family, a bird who had been killed for the sake of the holiday was the centerpiece for the meal. The very same dishes were served at Christmas, which I also celebrated. I wondered how to handle the holidays without breaking down crying.

Making Adjustments to Suit Vegan Needs

When I first went vegan, I approached Thanksgiving weekend cautiously. I believed the holiday should be about expressing gratitude. I knew that my mother expected me to come to her house to celebrate with her. I wanted to be there. But my commitment to the animals was much more important to me than a holiday. I could express gratitude in other ways. 

I decided to go to my mother’s home that year for Thanksgiving but I would cook my own food. So I stocked the kitchen with my own groceries for the big meal. But when I opened the refrigerator door the first morning I was there, I saw a turkey’s body lying on a shelf, and I almost lost it. 

That first Thanksgiving after I went vegan was challenging, but I learned to make adjustments to serve my own serenity. For a while, I stopped going to my mother’s home, and instead indulged in a delicious vegan Thanksgiving with my partner, at home.

The options were plentiful. I loved to cook a curried carrot bisque from the book Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz as an appetizer. Tofurky was always a possible main course, but I often prepared a homemade tempeh loaf and creamy “Buddha” (cauliflower) sauce instead.

There are cookbooks teeming with vegan recipes for Thanksgiving, from sophisticated to simple. And of course, there are seemingly endless recipes online. Eating well on Thanksgiving as a vegan was never a challenge.

But, admittedly, I missed seeing my family.

Finding New Ways to Celebrate

One of the first years that I was vegan, I had the honor of being invited to give a brief talk at farm animal rescue and advocacy organization Farm Sanctuary’s vegan Thanksgiving celebration in Watkins Glen, New York. I had recently written a children’s book titled Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary, composed of poems about the rescued farm animal residents of the Farm Sanctuary’s shelters in New York and California.

Before the evening’s talks and meal, attendees gathered at the Watkins Glen shelter and watched turkeys indulge in a delicious vegan Thanksgiving meal of their own, where they were the guests of honor.

For my talk, I had decided to speak about how beautiful and fantastic turkeys were. I gazed out at the faces of people who wanted to hear about why it was good to be vegan on Thanksgiving, instead of those who would contradict me. Then I sat down in a grand room, part of the crowd that was choosing to celebrate turkeys for Thanksgiving, rather than eating them. I felt my sadness begin to lift. 

Celebrating Together or Apart

Eventually, my family and I found a way to come together; my partner and I visited them on Thanksgiving weekend, but we ate separately. It seemed as though it might be an awkward configuration, but it was fine. Today, we often spend the holiday together, but I refrain from being a part of a meal that is built around the death of a being.

At Christmastime, my partner and I often stay at home. There, we can honor our vegan values without worrying about them being challenged.

Occasionally, we receive a gift from someone that is not vegan-friendly, whether it be cosmetics that contain animal products or a wool scarf. I’d rather people didn’t give us those items, but I try to appreciate the spirit of giving instead of resenting people I love for their imperfections.

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Peace, Love, and Gratitude

The holidays can be a difficult time for everyone, and I believe most of us are trying to do our best. So I try to focus on appreciating the spirit of giving.

And over the years, my family have become more mindful of my vegan lifestyle. They often seem to find joy in giving me the things that suit my needs. I am thrilled to see how happy they are when they hand me a gift and proudly state, “It’s vegan!” 

Ultimately, I want the holidays to not just be about food or gifts or family. For me, I want them to focus on gratitude, peace, and love. These are things that I can have in my life without purchasing or receiving anything. I can celebrate with or without family.

Gratitude is something that I try to express daily, but I enjoy taking a full day on Thanksgiving to truly reflect on all of the things that I appreciate in my life. I can do that by sharing my thoughts with my partner, a friend, or just going for a walk and remembering the many things in my life that have brought me happiness.

Peace can sometimes be elusive, but I find that it is truly up to me to deliver peace to my life. I do this by gravitating towards people and situations that help me to feel peaceful, and letting go of people and things in my life that cause me undue stress. I find that meditation and prayer help me a great deal in bringing peace to my life.

Love is not exclusive to families, and for many of us, our families are not sources of love. I find love with my family, partner, friends, my rescued companion animals, and the love I feel at events where I speak or read, when joy and laughter rises up from the audience.

As it turns out, gratitude, peace, and love are very vegan-friendly.


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Maya Gottfried is the author of books for children and adults, including Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary (Knopf) and Vegan Love (Skyhorse).

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