With Whom do we Eat and Who are They Eating? The Social Dilemma of Thanksgiving & Christmas

Food is not only used to give us energy and nourishment. How we use it is influenced by our socio-cultural heritage. Our relationship with food is very closely interconnected with our family of origin, with the people who loved and fed us as infants and throughout our childhoods, and with the siblings and friends with whom we shared meals. We carry this phenomenon of imbuing food with love and care into our adult lives, so that the planning, shopping, growing, preparing, cooking and serving of food is a deeply intimate and complex phenomenon. We share feelings of warmth, communication, and understanding in the context of shared meals. What is an overtly simple act – eating three meals a day – is, in fact, a complex giving and receiving of love and nourishment. It is understandable then, that when a friend or family member refuses the food that someone else has carefully imbued with this care, feelings can be very hurt. People may feel that not only is the meal being rejected; the love that went into its preparation along with the wish to share time and conversation are all rejected. Indeed, the person who provided the food can feel themselves personally rejected. For many people, this act of shared eating is the nourishment that is required to sustain relationships, and not only our physical bodies.

From the perspective of the animal rights activist, it is deeply offensive and painful to be in the presence of animal foods. They are the products of so much unnecessary suffering. However, refusal to partake in events that involve animal foods is not without social consequences.

I personally recall being present at a celebration that involved sharing food where, among the edible items on offer, were chickens’ wings. This was not long after Matilda died (http://www.edenfarmanimalsanctuary.com/matilda.html). I was in the company of people whom I dearly love. The problem was that I also loved Matilda very dearly and was grieving at having lost her. At they ate I recalled that Matilda’s last act in life was to lift her wings as if to fly. I recalled that her beautiful wings had glossy black feathers with hints of green and blue in them and I remembered how she used to use her wings to fly over the fence that I had built to keep her safe. She would arrive at my kitchen window and come inside to spend time with me – of her own volition. The situation at the party was incongruous to me. I observed knowing that this was an activity that I used to consider so ‘normal’ that it would barely have registered in my consciousness.  Now, through the lens of justice, love, and equality between me other species, I tried to guess how may individuals’ miserable lives had ended with that beautiful part of their bodies becoming food for the humans I also love.

So, what is the best course of action for a vegan, animal rights activist to take in handling these social events? I will not prescribe a course of action for another. It is up to you to do what you feel best serves the non-humans on whose behalf you advocate, and also serves as a source of compassionate education for the humans in your life. Sometimes these situations are best avoided; sometimes you can foster more compassion from within your extant social situations than you can by leaving them.

It is helpful if you can find a way to let your friends and family know that you are not rejecting them when you fail to attend social events that involve using non-humans as food; what you are rejecting is participation in behaviour that entails the infliction of suffering and death on the non-humans for whom you advocate. An option worth considering is encouraging others to share vegan food. You can suggest vegan recipes or vegan (or vegan friendly) restaurants as social venues; this gives your friends/family the opportunity to discover how delicious food does not necessitate cruelty. If eating at a friend’s or family member’s home, you can bring some vegan food with you.

How we choose to deal with the situations that arise in our lives, and the effectiveness of our methods, are different for everyone. I highly recommend Bob and Jenna Torres book Vegan Freak (relevant pages pp122-125) for support in Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World.

If you are facing the difficult decision about how or with whom to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas, or any other social occasion, because of situations that depend on the cruel breeding, short lives, and horrific deaths of non-human persons, at least know that you are not alone in your dilemma. As Vegan Pioneers (Yates, 2012 ) we have an uphill journey in encouraging others to realise the oppression and unnecessary pain that is inherent in all of the ways that non-human animals are used. The following excerpt is from Roger Yates’ PhD thesis on Human – Nonhuman Relations, and comments on this very dilemma:

You never know
You never know who’s for lunch today.
Who’s for Lunch Today?

Albert Hammond, 1973,
Mums Records

Toward the end of 2001, there was a lengthy discussion on a nonhuman advocacy email network about issues arising from the annual North American ‘Thanksgiving’ celebration. A non meat-eater had written in saying she was negotiating with family members about how the day should go; particularly, what was to be done about the traditional ‘Thanksgiving turkey’. Not wanting to spoil the occasion for others, the animal advocate was considering allowing her mother to have her way and visit brandishing a specially pre-cooked turkey. Her email was an apparent reflection of her anxiety about compromising her principles; but it also seemed to reveal her recognition, and even partial acceptance, of the cultural importance of a turkey dinner on this particular social occasion.

There is the suggestion that ‘animal rights’ views in this case had the clear potential to disrupt and upset a hitherto not-especially-thought-about aspect of Thanksgiving: that is, the plight of the millions of turkeys killed for it. This appears to be a case in which some awareness truly had the ability to ‘spoil’ a dinner: and an awareness of the emailer’s views had made her relatives, perhaps for the first time, think about turkeys at Thanksgiving, rather than simply think about Thanksgiving Turkey. When Groves (1995) investigated the role of ‘emotion’ in social movement activity about human-nonhuman relations, he found a similar situation. He found that animal activists were often accused of ‘spoiling’ happy celebrations and occasions, and it is clear that this generally means that the philosophy of ‘animal rights’ had made people directly think about certain aspects of their relations with other animals (ibid: 441). For example, one activist told Groves that friends, aware of his and his wife’s position on human-nonhuman relations, stated before a meal: ‘We’re not going to say anything about food in front of our kids’. If a child comes up and mentions something about meat, the activist says of his friends: ‘They’ll all look at us like ‘don’t start him thinking!’’ (ibid.)

Groves also recounts how a North American female activist had caused her mother to be very angry when she did talk about the plight of turkeys during Thanksgiving. Her mother’s rage was at least partly prompted by the presence of the activist’s aunt and the potential of a spoilt meal following the campaigner’s comments. The activist states that she was told by her mother: ‘‘This is supposed to be a happy occasion. It’s Thanksgiving. You’re supposed to be thankful’. I said ‘I am thankful. I’m thankful I’m not a turkey!’’

Compassion to Human as well as Non Human Animals

Remember your own journey and do what you can to educate with compassion (Tom Regan). By doing so you accord the same respect to humans that you grant to the non-humans you advocate for, and you are likely to be much more effective.

Tom Regan On Communicating With Non-Vegans

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Tom Regan published on the AR Zone.
Over the years I’ve received letters from total strangers who tell me that reading something I’ve written “changed their life.” I’ve also received a like number of messages from people who think I’m a total nut case. So my experience has been: some people respond favourably to philosophical arguments; others do not. My advice? Let other people be our guide. Listen to them, to find out where they are in their life. Maybe they think they “have to eat meat.” Maybe they think “God gave animals to us.” Maybe they think “watching performing animals is great family fun.” Go with their flow. Be patient. Be genuine.
Did I say “be patient?” Nancy recently reminded me of something that happened it now must be twenty years ago at least. We were attending a professional meeting and a student stopped us. “What about plants?” he asked, to which a third person who was with us (raising her voice) said, “That is the stupidest question I’ve ever heard in my life! What do you have, mush for brains?” Then she stormed-off, in a huff. Later that evening, when our paths crossed, she said, “Honest, Tom and Nancy, I swear, people have asked me that question a thousand times! I can’t take it anymore.” To which Nancy and I replied, “Yes, but that was the first time that young man asked us that question.”

The last thing other animals need is another reason not to care about them. How we act towards other people can provide just such a reason. Being rude or judgmental doesn’t help any nonhuman. A coping technique I use (to quell my impatience, when I feel it bubbling-up in my throat) is to think of the people who ask questions I’ve been asked hundreds of times as mirrors. Yes, I think of them as mirrors. When I look at them, in other words, what I see is a reflection of who I used to be.
Like them, there was a time when I didn’t know how other animals were being treated.
Like them, there was a time when I knew but didn’t care.
Like them, there was a time when I knew and cared but not enough to change how I was living.
Like them, there was a time when I was . . . them!
That’s what I try to remind myself. I don’t want to come across as self-righteous or arrogant. That would give the questioner another reason not to care about other animals, and I don’t want to do that—I don’t want to be that reason. – Excerpted from an interview with Tom Regan published on the AR Zone.


Torres, B & J (2010) Vegan Freak, Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World, Version 2.0, PM Press.


Yates, R (2004) ‘The Social Construction of Human Beings and Other Animals in Human-Nonhuman Relations. Welfarism and Rights: A Contemporary Sociological Analysis,’ Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, School of Social Sciences, University of Wales at Bangor. http://roger.rbgi.net/avoiding_unpleasure_and_evading.html (Accessed 1st November 2012)

http://www.nonhumanslavery.com/tom-regan-on-communicating-with-non-vegans (Accessed 07 November 2012)


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