In the wake of 'Black Friday,' the day when British people will drink twice as much as usual, putting a huge strain on hospitals, police and generally annoying others, it's time to have a look at our drink-sodden culture, and ask some questions about why getting hammered is so often associated with having a good time.
As ever, so much of the Christmas build-up seems to revolve around alcohol. From articles in the Metro about how best to go to work with a hangover, to recipes for a multitude of cocktails, the way to get into the spirit of things seems to be, well, with spirits. This year I'm feeling more aware of this, possibly because of having a non-British boyfriend, who has alerted me to the notion that this is not the way all nations approach the festive season. Apparently buying a bottle of Bombay Sapphire (other gin is available) because it's on offer and will be a treat for all in the house is a bit odd. It's also because a good friend of mine chose to 'go sober' almost a year ago, making this her first 'dry' Christmas.
I'm working freelance this year, so no Christmas parties for me. Even before that, the school-based shenanigans are hardly the free dinner/drink-sodden affairs that are usually offered by offices (at least in my mind - don't spoil my illusions). You can't exactly have a three-course meal and free booze on the taxpayer, especially not with delicate children about, so in my experience we usually have a few sandwiches and head to the pub.
As do most other people. The tube is getting more and more full of Chrismas-hatted, festive-jumpered revellers, smelling variously of mulled wine/beer/snowball/eggnog (no I don't know what it is either) and I either find myself incredibly jealous of how much fun they seem to be having, or overly pious at how marvellous I am to be sailing home on the train on a Friday at 9pm without a drop having passed my lips. So why do we seem to go so far into extremes?
Other cultures are often cited as examples of how to drink without getting off your face and waking up in a stranger's bed with a plant pot for a hat. Just look at the Italians, we say, how suave they are, having an aperitif before dinner. On a visit to Naples, I distinctly remember the look of abhorrence I received when trying to just order a drink, without any food. Talk about reinforcing national stereotypes. Or the French. As fond as they are of a good wine, they have the capacity to open a bottle with dinner and not actually drink the whole thing, even if there are four people at the table.
So is it just a cultural phenomenon? Growing up as I did in the 90s, the culture of binge drinking was fully taking off (Sarah Cox, my hangovers were all your fault), accompanied by some strange notion that by drinking 10 pints and vomiting you were some sort of super feminist. Statistics show that if you behave compulsively in your teens, you are far more likely to continue into adulthood. It might be that my furtive cider drinking as a youngster have doomed me to forever be unable to say no to another drink, or to refuse the barman's assumption that of course I want a double. I suspect it's a little more complex than that.
According to an article I read today, the true way to enjoy Christmas is to lay off the booze completely. Able to hold a conversation with your granny, wrap the awkwardly-shaped toy for your nephew and get stuck into helping cook the dinner without feeling queasy, will heighten and enrich your Christmas experience. I can definitely see the benefit. More and more I am avoiding that third (ok, fourth) pint, the extra slosh of wine, simply because I can't handle the thought of losing half of my Sunday to vegetating in bed. There's a reason that the majority of drunk people on the street are in their twenties - they get away with having mild hangovers.
Having said that, I can't get away from the idea that not drinking at all is just a little bit depressing. For some, I'm sure it's a valuable and healthy lifestyle choice, but in general I feel that completely denying yourself anything isn't a good idea. The times I've been on ridiculous diets which didn't allow certain foods, I've simply found myself knee-deep in a packet of chocolate hob-nobs with a guilty expression on my face. Complete denial often makes that which is prohibited far more exciting, and potentially creates a culture where we judge anyone that makes alternative life choices to ourselves.
Rather than cutting it all out in a bid for uber-health this year, I've opted to try some treacherous middle ground. But not in Italian or a French way, rather in a British way. As far as I can gather, this will mean I will happily go to the pub and order nothing but the amusingly named pun ale, but that I won't follow it by a mulled wine flavoured shot. Or that I'll have wine with dinner, but not feel the need to finish the whole bottle tonight. After all, there's always tomorrow. Anything frankly as enjoyable as getting a bit squiffy is always a tempting offer, especially when it is practically shoved down our throats as the only way to enjoy Christmas. But going to the complete extreme isn't the answer. Abstinence didn't work for sex, so let's not pretend it will work for alcohol either.
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