Compassionate Holidays

Interview with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

What advice would you give to a new vegan spending a first holiday season with family?

First, understand that the holidays may be difficult. Food is a huge part of our human experience. It is how we celebrate. It is how we communicate. It’s how we congregate. It is everything to a human community. And it’s very sad if we withdraw from that experience because of people participating in what we see as violence against animals. And it’s also very difficult for us to participate in it or at least watch the celebration knowing what we know.

I think it’s imperative for us to communicate with our family members before we go. They can’t read our minds. Arriving on Christmas Day and just expecting it to work—I don’t think that’s the best way to go about it. I think fall is a good time to start talking to our family members about what the holidays mean to us, what we can do to help with preparations, and how we can plan them so that we’re all happy. You want to be there for the holidays. You love your family, and you recognize family is really important. But you also want to be comfortable.

Talk about ways that work for everyone. You could help make the main dish. Certainly talk to your family about dairy-free swaps they can make. Ask if they know how to use plant milk and dairy-free butter for the mashed potatoes. So much of these winter holiday meals are about side dishes—look at what you can do to help veganize the side dishes so that everyone can eat. The other thing we should talk to our family about is that it is offensive and it is hard to sit at a table and see a carcass on the table, and usually it’s the centerpiece, right? This is very difficult. They might be amenable to not having a bird at all, or if they are unable to do that, what about just keeping it in the kitchen? Serve that part of the meal from the kitchen.

Credit: Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
Why do you think food can be a particularly challenging issue for parents?

I think it’s because food is one of the most primal and primitive ways that our parents nurture us. That’s the first way they sustained our lives. And for mothers who breastfed, they were feeding you from their body. And then comes their own worldview, values, and experiences that they share with you. All of these things are getting instilled in you. And they are also infused into the foods that have been chosen in our families.

Culturally, we can identify with common foods most of us grew up with, especially if we grew up in the U.S.—regionally, and even by family, foods change. There might be specific recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. There’s all this baggage, all this stuff that is imbued in the food our parents feed us. And then when we say no to those foods, I think it’s like we are saying no to what they’ve taught us, to what they’ve given us.

We don’t have to “solve this, but we have to understand it and be sensitive to it. That will put us on better ground.

We can come to a place together where we can all have our needs met. We can be very clear that our choices are not about them. They are about our values. Part of being an adult is figuring out who we are, what our values are, and taking from our parents and our families what works and then kind of leaving behind what doesn’t speak to us anymore.

It could be religion. It could be customs. It could be language, and food is just another example.

And, they will get over it.

None of us have a recipe that has never been modified. It’s always changing with times, with allergies, and so it’s just part of it. But we first have to understand why people hang on to traditions strongly.

What about when you’re at a party, and people point out that you’re vegan?

We are the vegan in the room, and people are curious. Yes, we might get some stupid jokes. That’s part of it. People are uncomfortable. They make jokes because they don’t know what to say. But people are genuinely curious—especially for something so foreign to them. Not everyone who is vegan is also an advocate. You may not have found your voice yet, but I believe very strongly in seeing conversation as an opportunity and an honor and a privilege to speak about something that clearly means a lot to you.

I believe very strongly in speaking from our story. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than saying: “Here is why this means so much to me. I didn’t know then what I know now.

Speak very much from the heart without feeling like you are defending yourself. Tell a story about your experience and your awakening. Put aside wherever they are. You don’t have to memorize facts and be an expert. Just speak from your heart.

I also think a great strategy is to ask questions back. We don’t always have to have the answers. Someone asking, “Why does this mean so much to you? could lead to interesting conversations. Or “Tell me why you eat what you eat? Why are you vegan? Your question doesn’t have to be why they’re not. We always think we have to win an argument or speak in a way that’s going to make someone change their mind. I think that puts way too much pressure on us, and I think it’s unrealistic. People read that, and they think we’re coming to the conversation with an agenda. Just being prepared for a dialogue rather than feeling like we have to convert someone makes a big difference.

What’s your favorite holiday meal?

I think a holiday meal really has to do with having a focal point on the table or on the plate. When I’m preparing holiday meals, I love having some kind of centerpiece. Around the winter holidays, having a stuffed squash is so pretty and people really love it. I usually will have some type of stuffed squash, often an acorn squash. Have a really visually beautiful piece that’s also relevant to the season.

Sign up for Colleen’s 30-day Vegan Challenge, listen to her podcast, and find more of her writing at

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