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What could holidays look like in a vegan world?

Better yet, what new traditions can we create to bring people together?

Thanksgiving, circa 2018

Currently, the majority of people in the United States gather with their families each year on the second-to-last Thursday of November. People drive or fly in from out of town to be with parents, children, and siblings. A big feast is prepared, and everyone sits down at the dinner table together to eat and say what they’re thankful for. It’s a great time to be around family and friends, eat good food, and take a couple days off of work—things that everyone enjoys. (Unless politics start getting discussed.)

This all sounds rather lovely, except that the central part of the feast is almost always a dead turkey.

(One note that I think is really important, especially as we’re discussing this particular holiday: I know that certain holidays and traditions, Thanksgiving being one of them, originate from oppression against humans as well as nonhumans—in this case, a history of violence against the native people of North America. I’m offering the ideas in this post specifically in relation to the movement for nonhuman animals, like animals killed for food, but it’s possible some ideas could be applicable to discussing the human oppression and suffering involved as well. The basic idea of this post is to try to change culture from a psychologically sound place of understanding those who you want to influence. I think a promising example of transforming culture is how some cities are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.)

What to Do with Bad Culture

An understandable reaction to harmful and oppressive culture—such as any tradition that involves harming animals—is to want to simply reject it outright: “Thanksgiving is a stupid holiday and I will take no part in it. I won’t come, I won’t talk about it, and I’ll pretend it doesn’t even exist.”

This is a common reaction of vegans to things that involve eating animals, and it’s a common reaction of anyone who sees some dominant oppression in society. We think: the oppression is bad, and thus anything associated with the oppression is bad.

Unfortunately, this approach isn’t particularly popular with the majority of people. “You don’t eat animals, and now you want to destroy our holidays with family, too?”

For someone who doesn’t see the violence taking place at a Thanksgiving dinner table, bad-mouthing Thanksgiving is basically like saying, “I hate family and being thankful for things.” Not only does nothing get accomplished about the dead turkey on the table, but people are probably pushed a little further away from acknowledging the core issue, which is violence towards animals.

But to acquiesce and go along with the full cultural tradition is basically to give tacit approval to the act of killing a turkey for dinner.

How can we navigate this territory, making progress for animals without making a whole bunch of people angry or defiant in the process?

Transform or Create

Let’s say you’re trying to kick a bad habit. Should you focus on not doing that habit, or on what you will do instead?

Research suggests that trying to kick a habit by focusing on not doing it can actually be counterproductive, leading us to do the habit more than we had been before. “If I have the urge to smoke, then I just won’t smoke.” This is because by telling ourselves “don’t do that thing”, we’re actually thinking about the thing even more.

So what should we do? Instead of focusing on telling ourselves how much we’re not going to do the old thing, we have to tell ourselves something positive that we will do—a new habit that we’ll put in place. “If I have the urge to smoke, I’ll step outside and chew a piece of gum instead.”

This idea could provide a model for how to deal with negative aspects of culture.

Transform Existing Culture

We have a problem with the dead bird on the table for Thanksgiving.

Following the research above, if we keep talking about the things we want to get rid of, we’re just going to keep reinforcing thoughts of those things. By reinforcing those thoughts, people might become more entrenched in wanting those things, even if they didn’t feel as strongly before.

Reminds me of the saying, “Any press is good press.” When it comes to reinforcing ideas in our brain, that idea is probably true.

So let’s take a look at the other approach—emphasizing something else instead of the negative thing.

One way we could approach the issue is by identifying the positive aspects that we believe the culture or tradition is really about, and then communicating our support for those pieces while suggesting a substitution for the bad parts. (Perhaps downplaying the significance of those parts, if possible.)

Maybe we make the case that Thanksgiving is really about family and giving thanks, and we downplay as much as possible the role of the turkey—while maybe offering up some information about why it’s wrong to kill turkeys, if we can do so in a way the audience will be receptive to.

We then express our wholehearted support for those values—family and giving thanks—while expressing our desire to change just a couple of things. Maybe we could even frame those changes as being more in line with the values of family and giving thanks: “On a day where we celebrate giving thanks and family, we wouldn’t want to take the turkeys away from their families.”

If possible, we can transform the culture to remove the negative aspects while reinforcing the positive aspects—potentially even introducing new positive aspects to the culture, to lessen the feeling of loss of any of the negative aspects. The book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath is packed with good ideas on how to help make changes like these easier.

In time, we could shift culture where a vegan Thanksgiving is more in line with the “true meaning” of the holiday than a non-vegan one.

Create Analogous Culture

Sometimes, it might be really difficult to transform a piece of culture or a tradition.

Maybe we’re getting a lot of resistance to the idea of reframing it, or maybe the idea of animal exploitation is so deeply ingrained that it’d be impossible to remove it.

In these cases, one thing we could try is creating our own new and analogous culture.

For example, maybe we create a new tradition of going hiking on Thanksgiving, or donating to charity. Maybe we start a totally new “Vegan Pie Day” tradition on the Saturday before or after Thanksgiving.

Although this might not succeed at eradicating the negative aspects of the other tradition, it could give people more chances to positively associate with our ideas of creating a better world. Maybe your friend goes to a Thanksgiving dinner and eats part of a turkey, but then he also goes to Vegan Pie Day the next Saturday and gets exposed to the idea of not killing animals. After a few years, maybe some of those ideas have started to sink in. Maybe your friend grows slowly more uncomfortable with the turkey on the table each year because he knows he’s going to Vegan Pie Day a few days later.

Rather than always fighting the bad aspects of what we don’t like, we could experiment with creating some new, associated positive traditions—Vegan Pie Day or otherwise.

Creating New Culture

Another powerful thing to think about is how we can create completely new culture centered around animals or veganism.

I think Veganuary has done a great job of this, creating a “culture” of people trying out veganism in January, and I’m excited to see it continue growing. Vegan Outreach and others have also created—or adapted from others—a culture of leafleting within the movement. I think the Liberation Pledge is another example of trying to create new culture by uniting people who don’t sit at tables where animals are being eaten and adding a physical element (the fork bracelet).

Or consider the new culture that animal sanctuaries have created.

Previously, any place that kept animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens would only have them there in order to exploit them and eat or sell their bodies. Sanctuaries have created a whole new model, allowing animals to live full lives as freely and healthfully as possible. Sanctuaries also sometimes let the public come and meet the animals and learn about the ways in which humans exploit other animals. For many people, this is their first time ever meeting a cow, pig, or chicken.

In addition, there’s a third component of the new culture sanctuaries have created, which is that of volunteerism and vegan refuge from an emotionally challenging world. I hear this all the time from people who volunteer at one of our local sanctuaries here in Colorado, Luvin Arms.

(Side note—Luvin Arms has also recently started the Open Sanctuary project, open sourcing everything they know about starting and running a sanctuary. I think this is a phenomenal example of an organization investing in movement building.)

Sanctuaries are often run at least in part by volunteers, people who care about the mission and want to pitch in. Volunteers also sometimes come just for their own emotional health, which many people have told me is a large part of why they volunteer.

In sanctuaries, we see a very thorough example of new culture: creating a safe place for animals, not an exploitive one; creating an opportunity for public education around the issues; and creating a place for animal advocates to volunteer in a physical, hands-on way and to recharge their emotional batteries.

It’s this kind of culture that’s going to endure far into the future.

New Cultures We Could Create

Let’s take a couple of minutes to noodle on some types of new culture and tradition we could create.

Holidays

Everyone loves a good holiday. Why don’t we create our own, and have some associated activities with it?

It could be “Advocate Day”, where people who consider themselves animal advocates get together and share a meal and tell stories.

It could be “Vegan Pie Day”, where we all make or buy vegan pies and give them to non-vegan friends or family.

Maybe it’s “Animal Liberation Day”, where people get together and talk about all the progress that’s been made for animals. We could tell stories about all of the people who have advocated for animals through time, and tell stories about what kind of vision we have for the future.

Whatever it is, keep in mind the things that people like. People like food, friends, family, drinking, giving and receiving gifts, playing games, telling stories, engaging in meaningful rituals, singing, dancing, and laughing. (And of course, some people don’t like several of these things.)

Some days do already exist, like World Vegan Day (November 1st), World Vegetarian Day (October 1st), World Day for the End of Speciesism (date changes each year), etc. It seems like we have a long way to go, though, to successfully create new traditions that both naturally invite participation and also positively impact society for animals.

Activities

Certain types of activities can be baked in various cultures. For example, in many religious traditions, the activities of donating money (tithing) and traveling to spread the religion (mission trips) are big parts of what it means to be a member of that religion. People living in Boulder, where I live, have a strong culture of outdoor recreation like hiking, climbing, and skiing. High school boys where I grew up had a culture of getting together to play video games and eat at Waffle House.

We already have a culture of participating in sanctuary work, which is a great example of new culture being created. But what other positive things could we create?

We might also create a culture of donation, for example, where vegans and other animal advocates donate some percentage of their money to organizations working on animal issues. Maybe we have a culture of getting together with others weekly and writing letters to people in our local communities, encouraging them to adopt animal-friendly stances and policies. Maybe “Vegan Drinks” becomes a new monthly tradition, where every city around the world has one night a month where vegans come together to socialize and catch up. Maybe weekly potlucks or other types of weekly gatherings could become more of a norm.

Traditions for Your Group or Platform

If you’re part of a group, or you run a website, or you have a platform of any kind, you can create traditions and culture that are specific to your platform and your audience.

Veganuary is a good example of this, where the whole organization is built around a certain type of tradition. (The tradition of people trying out going vegan in January.)

Maybe you run a website or a social media page related to animal advocacy or veganism. You could create new culture or make up a tradition around anything you think is important.

Let’s say you really care about fish advocacy, because so many fish are killed each year and most people are very far from including fish in their moral consideration. You could have one week a year—let’s say you call it “Fish Week”—where you hold events and encourage specific actions related to fish advocacy. You could tap into human psychology and include some kind of celebration, and some kind of competition.

Or maybe you want to have a culture of vegan mentorship. One way to really emphasize that could be to have one day a month that’s always devoted to discussing mentorship, checking in with mentors and mentees, encouraging people to sign up for the mentoring program, etc.

There are a lot of opportunities here. Here are a couple of questions you could ask yourself:

  1. What are things we think are really important? What do we really care about?
  2. Is there a way to create some culture around those important things, where everyone in your community knows that they’re supposed to care about something? Or that they’re supposed to do something?
  3. Can you set up your culture in a way where doing the right thing is the easy thing, because it’s baked into the foundations of who you are?
  4. Is there a new tradition you can create to help bring attention or awareness to something important? How can you make sure it’s naturally appealing to people while still conveying the meaning you want?

And if we keep working on transforming existing culture and creating new culture, piece by piece we will create a better future for animals—family and holidays included.

What are your thoughts? Please feel free to leave a comment below or reach out using the contact form. And if you have ideas for future topics for AMP, I would love to hear those too!

The Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.

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