The holidays mean different things to different people. For a lot of us, it is one of the most important times of the year, a chance to come together and share time with family and friends. But often those get-togethers with family and friends involve a shared meal, and those of us who are vegetarian can often feel pulled between a desire to spend time in harmony with our loved ones and our commitment to avoiding meat. Which leads to a question: can someone who usually avoids meat think of themselves as vegetarian, even if they eat some at family gatherings over the holidays?
I’m a scholar of religion and animal ethics, and have spent the last two decades talking with people about their vegetarian identities. Based on the stories I’ve heard, I argue that yes, people who generally avoid meat but choose to eat some on holidays or for other social and cultural reasons should feel free to continue to think of themselves as vegetarian.
This might seem counterintuitive: after all, the word ‘vegetarian’ is usually understood to mean no meat, full stop. No shades of gray and no room for cultural or other considerations. But do we really need to be so restrictive? I believe that we should understand vegetarianism to include everyone who makes the effort to adopt a meat free diet, even if social and cultural considerations sometimes lead them to make exceptions.
Understanding vegetarianism in this way would help avoid situations where people feel that if they slip up and eat meat just once, they’re off the wagon entirely and can now eat meat all the time. Just a few weeks ago someone told me, “I used to be vegetarian, but then I visited my grandparents and felt I needed to eat the meat they served, so now I’m not vegetarian anymore.” I’ve heard many stories like this over the years, and if we adopted a more expansive, flexible idea of what it means to be vegetarian, people like this would not have to feel like they were no longer part of the movement just because they ate some meat once with their family.
After all, if our concern is animal welfare, surely helping people avoid meat most of the time is more beneficial than pushing people out of the community by insisting that they must avoid all meat at all times.
The holidays are a perfect time to think about this question and how we handle the social and cultural challenges a meat-free diet poses. After all, holidays like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas often center on bringing family and friends together to share a meal. Partaking in this tradition brings us together and shapes our identities. But that sense of bonding over a meal also means that insisting on a meat-free meal—or even just refusing to personally eat the meat that is being offered—can lead to friction with other family members.
Whether it is intended this way or not, some meat-eaters perceive vegetarianism as a moral challenge to their own lifestyles, and respond with frustration, anger, or moral judgments of their own. Most of us who avoid meat have experienced this type of response at one point or another, and so I empathize with those who might choose to go along with family customs rather than risk driving a wedge between themselves and the rest of their family.
Of course, we can celebrate a holiday meal without eating meat. Vegetarian and vegan options are proliferating, and I certainly applaud this progress! When family and friends gather at my house later this month, I’ll be serving squash stuffed with rice and cranberries. But I have a largely vegetarian family, and those who are not are at least sympathetic and understanding. Many vegetarians are not so fortunate and must choose between the moral choice to forgo meat and the possibility of derailing an important family event.