Approximately three weeks before Christmas, I joined a growing number of Brits in the decision to go vegan. At university, where I could control my diet and eat as I liked, the change wasn't a problem - but as the Christmas holidays neared, I was overcome with a gnawing fear about how my family would react.
Christmas - the time which is perhaps no better symbolised through that holiday favourite, the pig-in-blanket. A lavishly meat-on-meat affair in which animal foods laden with cholesterol and saturated fat seem to be the order of the day. Being vegetarian, as I had for many years, had been hard enough. The thought of cutting all animal foods during the festive season seemed impossible and downright antisocial.
But maybe we need to change our way of thinking. When did eating food become a substitute for fun? Do we honestly enjoy this unnecessary annual binge as much as the whirlwind of popular culture seems to tell us to? Adverts, supermarket aisles, and TV shows continue to tell a tired old narrative which glorifies "bad" food - cholesterol-laden mince pies, fatty gravy, and sugary chocolates - justified simply because it's Christmas. We are told to indulge, to "treat ourselves" - and memes circulating the internet reinforce the pathology of gluttony and laziness. Yet do we really need all this in the first place?
Call me melodramatic, but it seems distasteful that we still fetishize this festive feast at a time when global temperatures are at their highest; homelessness in the UK is on the rise and income inequality continues to grow. With the knowledge that the meat and dairy industry contribute so enormously to deforestation, that more and more people are not getting enough food to live on, the fact that many of our tired and traditional Christmas menus are so reliant on an abundance of meat and dairy products doesn't seem to fit with the modern world.
Plus, if we only binge at Christmas to vow we will cut back, detox and lose weight as the New Year rolls in (pun intended), might there be some foresight in just indulging less in the first place? Experts suggest that Brits gorged on an average of 6,000 calories on the 25th December 2016 - roughly three times the recommended amount. Treating food as a reward is a recognised signal of a binge diet, according to Stanford scientists, which is characterised by an endless yo-yo of cutting back on unhealthy foods, only to reward ourselves by bingeing on them later. Instead of waiting until January, going vegan during the festive period forced me to overcome some of the biggest hurdles early on and learn how to stick to my (green, relatively harmless) guns, in every social situation.
Yes - Christmas, for me, was the best time to make the switch. It is probably the time of year in which I come into contact with the most relatives and friends within a short period, which allowed me to get the confession stage over with quickly. I had been so worried about how my family would respond, that I obsessively stored up on knowledge. I mentally listed plant-based protein sources, memorised statistics about the health and environmental benefits of my diet, watched yet more uncomfortable documentaries about factory farming, so that I would have a comeback for every one of their qualms. And my family ended up being, for the most part, extremely supportive.
Being vegan doesn't stop us from taking pleasure in food and cooking at Christmas, but it naturally lead to a healthier outlook by eliminating some of the least nutritious, most calorie-laden processed foods that were heaped up by the nation. Many people don't realise how easy it can be to reinvent the foods we know and love for a vegan diet, often with satisfying and more wholesome results. Vegan gingerbread? Check -just swap the butter for dairy-free spread. Gravy? Sorted - Bisto Favourite granules are also accidentally vegan. Christmas pudding? Sure - just swap regular for vegan suet. On Christmas day, I scarfed down a completely vegan parsnip tart, made with dairy-free pastry and a cheese-less pesto. It was delicious, and won the approval of even my meat-loving family members.
Veganuary works for many people, and the initiative does great work to pull in more and more people year on year. Yet for me, the achievement of enduring Christmas on a plant-based diet allowed me to see the longevity of my choice, brought me into some incredible conversations about food and ethics, and taught me how to navigate being vegan at a time when the outside world couldn't seem to be more against it. It's about facing up to others, educating people, and became a topic of dinner table conversation divisive enough to rival Brexit. If you can pull through the annual family argument about your veganism, you're in good shape for whatever 2017 can throw at you.