How does a vegan who’s concerned about climate change and social issues cope with the excess of the festive season? Holly Hughes advises you take baby steps, and be patient.
My name is Holly. Thus, despite being born in March, it is my birthright, a christened and legally-binding imperative that I must, no matter what, love Christmas. And I do – from the heady smell of the pine tree to the three kinds of potatoes tumbling off my gluttonous plate.
Yet, for me, Christmas is becoming a time increasingly fraught with conflict. Internal, interpersonal, existential, this conflict stems from a stand-off between “tradition”, desire, and my own increasingly sharpened principles as I battle with a season that talks about giving but seems more focused on taking. From the unrecyclable wrapping that adorns our Kris Kindle present to the technological gadgets that many human hands were persecuted to make, I sometimes feel like Christmas is a time of giving to few and taking from many. For me and my incorrigible notions, this season of joy feels instead like a manically-fuelled machine that tells us joy only exists if it comes in an expensive box, on a plate, or as the latest upgrade.
Christmas sees my neuroticism reach new heights of existential despair as I climb aboard a festive rollercoaster that plummets from euphoric bliss to crippling guilt. It is an odyssey I rarely undertake alone, dragging the innocent smiles of well-meaning friends and family into a darkness where a sequinned party outfit is reduced to slave labour, a decorated house a flaunting of the homelessness crisis, and a lovingly prepared meal a symbol of our wasteful attitude toward food production. “Forsaking mass, we convene our own ritual – a frantic, pyjama- clad dash around the kitchen preparing food for St Vincent de Paul.”
How to navigate this? Because I want to enjoy Christmas. I want to love it with all of the ebullient joy and faith of my younger self, to anticipate the season’s arrival with the impatient countdown that once defined the month of December instead of this ominous and pervasive dread. I don’t want to be the awkward “kind-of” vegan sullenly staring at an impossibly big turkey. I don’t want to be the ungrateful daughter who’s manically trying to look happy at the accumulation of “stuff” in house and stocking while figures of carbon footprint, energy wastage, and homelessness snowball in my mind. I don’t want to be the sister who crushes her siblings’ excitement as they lovingly wrap presents in layers of thoughtful (but unrecyclable) paper. How to do this? How to love this silly season and the world? How to battle with the excess and still have friends and family members greet me with a hug instead of a resentful eye roll? How do I return Christmas to a time of giving – to the planet and the less fortunate – without alienating everyone I love and hating myself?
I have spent the last few years searching soul and stocking for the answer to this predicament. Much like the never- ending courses of Christmas dinner, relearning and reshuffling tradition is a marathon, not a sprint. However, there are ways to reclaim the true festive spirit without going cold turkey (pun very much intended) on fun.
Take the military operation that is planning, devouring, and immediately regretting Christmas dinner. Forgoing tureens of buttery mash and baked goods slathered in custard is simply not a feasible reality for most of us. It is the glue that holds fractious families together, the uniting peacemaker after the inevitable sibling spat, and the dream that keeps me going in my flailing adulthood when dinner is a collection of toppings on a rice cake. Rather than give it up, my family overcomes the frenzied excess by simply sharing it with those who would otherwise go without.
Instead of making more food than even my bottomless appetite could feasibly demolish or face the accusatory stare of the hors d’oeuvres we swore we needed in an M&S panic from the refrigerated grave on December 29th, we donate these extras to those in need. Forsaking Christmas morning mass, we convene our own religious ritual – a frantic, pyjama-clad dash around the kitchen preparing food for St Vincent de Paul.
“Forsaking mass, we convene our own ritual – a frantic, pyjama- clad dash around the kitchen preparing food for St Vincent de Paul.”
And, while there is infinite joy to be found in sharing food and goodwill on a day notoriously cold and lonely, there is an understated but equal joy in sharing the meal’s preparation. It is the all-hands-on-deck spirit of our ritual that I love most; the whole-of-family involvement in a process that too often befalls my multitasking mother. Blaring Christmas music and sweating through our festive flannel, this tradition gives us – the self-centred adult children – a new appreciation for the laborious preparation that is catering for a fussy family of varying preferences, dietary requirements, and latest lifestyle fads. Find me a millennial who doesn’t need a dollop of that.
The same is true of my ultimate phobia: the dreaded Christmas present shopping. I am perpetually paralysed by the pressure to define my complete adoration for a loved one in not just the “perfect gift” but the perfect gift’s wrapping, accompanying card, and harem of smaller but equally perfect “bit” gifts. Sick of feeling pressured to buy things I know that someone doesn’t need and am not even sure they want, I instead have begun exchanging “things” for “experiences”. Tickets to a concert, a reservation at that restaurant a friend salivates over but can never justify, a well-timed massage – I try to give what my most precious commodity is: time. Time together or alone, but always time doing something they love, have always wanted to try, or a hobby sacrificed to the demands of a to-do list. This not only sidesteps the minefield of present-giving and the planet’s death by “bits”, but also restores the true measure of relationships to experiences shared rather than objects bought. Most importantly, it spares the world from my Hunger Games-esque fight to outdo myself and prove my love in which the fluorescent lights of a shopping centre find me more akin to a writhing Mr Bean than J-Law.
My name is Holly, and I really do love Christmas. I love a time when mince pies count as a food group and mulled wine is an accepted accompaniment for every meal. I fundamentally adore a season that allows you to lounge in pyjamas for days without judgement or flirt inappropriately and outrageously with any human you’ve ever idly fancied because “if you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?” But Christmas is not a Richard Curtis movie for us all – for most of us, in fact. I’m still figuring out how to overcome the inequalities that Christmas lights illuminate and build a season that is universally and inclusively kind.
In the meantime, however, I will continue to be a terrible vegan, annoying daughter and atrocious climate activist who, even as she’s complaining of overeating and bemoaning the fact that one-third of food produced globally is lost or wasted, continues to spoon stuffing straight from the saucepan into her mouth. Except, this year, as I amble up for my fourth helping of deep-fried brie, I will make sure that I’m not just filling my own plate. I will make sure that, as I look around, I am filling the plates of everyone around me. With experiences over things, with quality over quantity, and with an emotional, unrequested and probably unrecognisable rendition of “Silent Night”. Family, you’re welcome.
Digital illustration by Laura Kenny.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of IMAGE Magazine, on sale now.
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