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Deck the Halls with Veggies: The History and the current need for a more plant-based Christmas



Plant based Christmas

'Tis the season to be jolly, but has Christmas always been a festival of feasting on turkeys, pigs in blankets, and all things meaty?


Being of British Indian heritage, although my family are not Christian, the commercial popularity of Christmas and the community spirit of this holiday meant that we too participated in the festivities. And we still do! Many people of different backgrounds and cultures will say the same. I was always felt a little disappointed to have to cover an on call

on Christmas as it was always busy, and it

felt like I was firefighting. I had “Fear of Missing Out” or “FOMO”. I would be working while everyone would be eating, drinking and being merry in their homes. Although I knew what I was doing was valuable, I could see how hard my teammates worked, especially the nurses and I felt for the patients alone in hospital on Christmas.


On Christmas day in my family, we would traditionally serve a curry but with “western” sides such as roast potatoes and sprouts. It was an easy compromise to make when there was a mixture of vegetarians and meat eaters in the household. I used to feel embarrassed of why we couldn’t be traditional with a turkey or at least a roast chicken. However, when I finally tried turkey, I didn’t like the taste! I always have much preferred the sides! But is this view abnormal? Have people always had turkey for Christmas?


Let's rewind the clock, dust off the history books, and unwrap the surprising world of plant-based Christmas traditions that have been overshadowed by the star of the show – the turkey.


What’s caused the “Turkey takeover”?


The tradition of having turkey for Christmas dinner is as iconic as Santa's red suit, but did you know that this plump bird wasn't always the star of the holiday feast?


In the UK, goose was traditionally the preferred bird of choice for Christmas feasts during the medieval period. However, by the 16th century, turkeys were introduced to England from Spain, and their popularity grew over time.


Historically, only the wealthiest households could afford to indulge in the luxury of a Christmas goose or turkey. So, what did the common folk feast on during the festive season?


Most people couldn't gobble up a turkey (sorry bad pun!) due to its high price tag, and instead, they turned to more humble fare. Pies filled with minced meats (I used to think this was actual meat as a child but turned out to be the name of sweet fillings which included several dried fruits!), nut roasts, and hearty vegetable stews graced the tables of the less affluent. The idea of an extravagant, meat-heavy Christmas dinner only became widespread in the 19th century as prosperity grew.


The association of turkey with Christmas became more established during the Victorian period, thanks in part to the writings of authors like Charles Dickens, who featured turkey in his famous work "A Christmas Carol." This was an early form of advertising before television, Instagram or Facebook!


In the USA, the tradition of having turkey for Christmas likely evolved from the English custom, as many early American settlers were of English descent. Additionally, the large size of turkeys made them suitable for festive gatherings and family feasts.

 

Despite the popularity of turkey feasts, plant-based dishes have been enjoyed in many countries and among different cultures. A few examples of Plant-based traditions Worldwide are:

  1. Ethiopia – Ethiopians celebrate Christmas with a fasting feast called "Genna." During the Advent season leading up to Christmas, many Ethiopians follow a vegan diet, abstaining from meat and dairy. On Christmas day, a grand feast of lentils, vegetables, and injera (a large fermented lentil crepe) is enjoyed.

  2. Mexico – In Mexico, tamales – savoury parcels of masa (corn flour) filled with various ingredients like beans, vegetables, and chillies, are a Christmas staple. This tradition goes back to pre-Columbian times when tamales were offered to the Gods in religious ceremonies. Of course, there are meat tamales but plant-based tamales are just as popular.

  3. Greece - The Christmas season in Greece often includes periods of fasting, making popular plant-based dishes like Fasolakia Lathera a fitting and delicious choice for the holiday table. The dish translates to "braised green beans." This flavourful and hearty dish is made with fresh green beans cooked in a rich tomato sauce along with olive oil, onions, garlic, and various aromatic herbs.

  4. The Seventh-day Adventist community- A branch of Christianity known for their focus on health and wellness. They often celebrate Christmas with plant-based dishes. There is a large community of seventh day Adventists in Loma Linda in California which is regarded as a “Blue Zone” of the world. Many people live long and healthy lives owing to a focus on consuming a more Whole Food Plant based diet. Many studies on heart disease and other chronic diseases are based on this population of people (1). A popular plant-based main dish is a nut loaf. This dish is made from a combination of nuts, lentils, and whole grains, providing a hearty and nutritious alternative to traditional meat-centred meals.

 

The roots of these plant-based Christmas traditions are often intertwined with religious and cultural practices as mentioned. From fasting periods leading up to the holiday to an abundance of seasonal vegetables, each culture has crafted a unique celebration that doesn't solely rely on a centrepiece of roast meat or sides lathered in butter or cream.


As we deck the halls and roast chestnuts on an open fire (or an oven or air fryer!), it's worth reflecting on the rich tapestry of plant-based Christmas traditions that often get overlooked.


As I am a health coach and a doctor, I can’t go without mentioning the health implications of the Christmas indulgence on saturated fat and cholesterol from meat, dairy and ultra processed foods. The American Heart Association have warned that more people die from heart attacks between December 25th and January 1st  than at any other time of the year. (2)


I must also mention climate change. Unfortunately, we are amidst the world’s 6th mass extinction of biodiversity. Climate disasters around the world are becoming all too real. Without a healthy planet there would not be a healthy population.


 A study by a Harvard University researcher found that a typical turkey roast dinner, with roast potatoes cooked in goose fat, pigs in blankets, meat stuffing and meat gravy to feed a family of six emits the carbon dioxide equivalent of driving 78.5 miles in an average UK petrol car. (3)

 

In comparison, a similar sized nut roast, with roast potatoes cooked in vegetable oil, vegan pigs in blankets, sage and onion stuffing and vegetable gravy emits the equivalent of driving 31.6 miles in an average UK petrol car (3) The carbon emissions are close to half of that of a traditional meat roast.

 

The UK consumes 10 million turkeys during the Christmas season and 2 million of them are wasted! (4)

 

So, as you gather with your loved ones this holiday season, consider adding a plant-based twist to your table and starting a new tradition. Whether it’s a “curry” like my family or something else. Do explore the diverse and delicious world of Plant-based Christmas traditions from around the globe.


There are so many recipes out there nowadays, many for free including these two (please put the link to the recipes I give.)


Your arteries, the planet and the poor turkey’s will thank you later!

Reference

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