Spare a thought this Christmas for those of us experimenting with a new and previously unfamiliar concept: drinking alcohol in moderation. It’s not that we’re cutting drink out of the equation completely, it’s more an exploration of the notion that perhaps – hark, yonder breaks some radical thinking about Christmas drinking – we don’t actually need to get quite as sloshed as we used to at all those festive gatherings.
The invites have been piling up for weeks. Taking a brief inventory of the yuletide diary, I’m staring down the sequinned barrel of at least two office shindigs, three pantos, several carol services and a rake of other planned and impromptu gatherings with friends and family.
Some of these events will not involve alcohol. The carol services will be as dry as they are uplifting, and our family’s annual morning gathering to sing the 12 Days of Christmas, while an ear-splittingly noisy affair, is traditionally fuelled by nothing more intoxicating than coffee and hot chocolate.
But inevitably most of the other events in the calendar will feature booze and plenty of it. That’s before you factor in those spontaneous sessions that occur when you’re grabbing the last of your bits in town and bump into long-lost friends home for Christmas. This is, after all, the magic season. A time when “just the one” can morph miraculously into just the seven or eight or ten or more.
When I think of my own drinking habits, I’d have to describe much of it as mindless rather than mindful
There’ll be mulled wine and dubious mince pie-flavoured cocktails, champagne and cosy pints of stout in front of pub fires. The good news is, if you are trying to cut down this Christmas, you’ll be less alone than you might once have been. According to a recent survey from Drinkaware, a charity which amusingly is funded by the drinks industry, 30 per cent of those who responded wanted to drink less often. The Drinkaware Annual Barometer for 2021 showed that 37 per cent of respondents had already made what they called “small positive changes” to their drinking habits. Their website is awash with tips for mindful drinking for those who, if not exactly sober, are this very on-trend thing, “sober curious”.
Moderation as a movement has been growing in the past five years. So-called “Quit-Lit” books, which advocate giving up alcohol permanently, have been somewhat overtaken by the mindful version of these self-help guides. Rosamund Dean’s book from a few years ago, Mindful Drinking, How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, was swiftly followed by Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol by Ruby Warrington. Warrington’s book kick-started the aforementioned and growing “sober curious” movement, while away from the bookshelves, Club Soda, an online community that began in Britain in 2015, has attracted younger people who want to mind their mental health by living a life that’s less centred on alcohol-driven social activities.
When I think of my own drinking habits, I’d have to describe much of it as mindless rather than mindful. Pointless drinking, you might call it. The kind of drinking when you realise the bottle of wine you opened, planning to have one glass to ease into the evening after a working day, now appears to be nearly empty. The mindful, more moderate, approach involves bringing awareness to each glass and a bit more consideration to your behaviour and motivations around alcohol.
Of course, for the lifelong moderate drinkers – there are far more of you around than us excessive, mindless imbibers probably allow – there is nothing new to see here and I commend your restraint. But the moderate approach to drinking is a novelty for some of us and, as such, requires a bit of research.
‘At this time of year especially some of us are wrongly convinced by a heady combination of drinks advertising, social norms and the addictive power of alcohol’— Chiles
In anticipation of a more moderate Christmas season, I’ve been reading The Good Drinker: How I Learned To Love Drinking Less, a book by popular BBC broadcaster and Guardian columnist Adrian Chiles. Published earlier this year, it’s a fascinating read about his journey from drinking up to 100 units of alcohol a week to his now more healthy 20 or so units. (The measurements are a little different between Ireland and the UK, but the HSE recommended limit is 17 “standard drinks” – a half pint of beer, small glass of wine or pub measure of spirits – a week for men and 11 for women.) Moderating, rather than abstaining completely, can sometimes be seen as a cop-out but Chiles disagrees, arguing in a past column that the moderate route “requires constant thought; hundreds of decisions have to be made every week. But it is worth it: I am a bit lighter, a bit calmer, a bit healthier and what I do drink, I enjoy more.”
I arrange a Zoom call with Chiles to pick his brains about practical ways to reduce alcohol intake this Christmas. He begins by reframing the idea that alcohol is essential for a good time. A fanatical football fan and sports commentator, he points to the World Cup in Qatar where a decision was made to ban beer in the stadiums. “It’s really interesting,” he says. “In theory England could win the World Cup ... imagine all those England fans who’d normally be drinking will not be doing so this time. So they’re in the stadium. Harry Kane lifts the trophy. It’s the greatest day of their lives. Will any single one of them walk out thinking, I mean it was fantastic but it would have been better if I was able to drink? Nobody’s going to say that.”
While not a fan of the Qatari beer ban – “it’s the right thing happening for the wrong reason” – he says the World Cup gives the lie to the idea that drinking alcohol is essential for enjoyment, pointing out another example of the euphoria of the non-drinking Saudi fans after their win over Argentina last week.
At this time of year especially, he contends, some of us are wrongly convinced by a heady combination of drinks advertising, social norms and the addictive power of alcohol “that it is essential to drink a lot at Christmas otherwise you are not taking part properly”.
There is a special place in hell for people who try to make others drink
I ask him for tips for being at social events this December and drinking less. He’s a fan of apps such as Drink Less and Reframe to help set goals and monitor your drinking at this time of year. He’s also an advocate of making the first couple of drinks of the evening alcohol-free, and also those drunk during the last hour.
“You are going to be asleep before too long and there’s no point being drunk in your sleep, it will just add to your hangover,” he says sensibly. If drinking wine, he recommends refilling every second glass with water. Another ingenious tip for pint drinkers who want to avoid annoying comments is ordering a half pint or glass of beer between each pint and pouring that into your empty pint glass, so it appears to anyone who might be taking notes that you are keeping up.
Speaking of the note-takers, as part of his adventures in moderation, Chiles made a “solemn vow”. “The vow to myself was that I’d never guilt anybody else into having a drink or allow myself to be guilted into having one, and I really try to comply with that,” he says. “There is a special place in hell for people who try to make others drink. Anyone who tries, I would, on principle, not drink for half an hour just to spite them. Drinking less doesn’t make you any less nice, or less Christmassy or less sociable ... it’s irrelevant.”
When looking for advice about becoming a moderate drinker around Christmas and possibly beyond, I sought counsel from friends who I’d noticed had reduced their alcohol intake. One of them, let’s call her Grace, gave up alcohol completely a few years ago because of age-related hangovers, but is now “back on the sauce, somewhat”. But Grace’s version of back on the sauce involves not very much sauce at all.
“Every now and again, I’ll have a glass of something but it’s never more than that as the consequences are too severe,” she says. “I stopped because I was feeling so unsettled in the days after drinking, the joy didn’t really match the despair. The thing I realised on late evenings when everyone else was drinking and I wasn’t was how much I enjoyed and really experienced the night.”
She has a good tip about blending in with the committed drinkers at Christmas. “If you’re worried about standing out, most people don’t notice, especially in a party setting,” she says. “Sparkling water with a wedge of lemon in it looks just like a G&T. You can have a zero-alcohol pint of Guinness in a pub and no one will be any wiser.”
‘... At a certain point everyone realises that for the three or four hours of craic you get out of drinking, the price you pay in terms of hangovers and the time it takes to get over it as you get older is not worth it in a million years’— O’Brien
Grace concedes that dinner-party drinking is trickier. “The most alcohol I’ve had was recently when I had my single glass of wine and didn’t catch the kind person generously topping it up a couple of times.”
When I expressed my concerns about Christmas nights being boring without alcohol, she bats this notion away. “The expectation of a ‘dry shite’ night has proved unfounded. I’ve never felt like I’m having a miserable time on sober island while all around me are truly enjoying themselves,” she says.
“Partly it’s an age thing – I don’t need Dutch courage to talk to people any more. I quite like my mind so I no longer feel the need to alter it. The watcher-y Maeve Binchy part of me likes to watch people reveal different versions of themselves as the night goes on. Clear eyes are a superpower, and life’s too short for hangovers with added dollops of ‘the fear’.”
Peter O’Brien, who founded Happenings, a company organising sustainable, meaningful and alcohol-free cultural events, agrees. Having reduced his alcohol intake in his 30s and 40s, he stopped drinking completely the year before his 50th birthday four years ago.
“I think at a certain point everyone realises that for the three or four hours of craic you get out of drinking, the price you pay in terms of hangovers and the time it takes to get over it as you get older is not worth it in a million years ...” he says.
In terms of practical advice for those cutting back, he says he usually brings some alcohol-free drinks to a party and then sticks to water with a slice of lemon for the rest of the night. But his top tip for drinking less at this time of year is to make sure you have a plan.
“Have a time of departure and stick to it,” he says. Around Christmas time if your intention is to drink in moderation, he recommends leaving, like Cinderella, before midnight or at least not too long after when, as he points out, events can often take a turn for the messy.
“The most important thing is to get out of dodge at the right time ... the number one thing you should do is get out of there before the monsters appear. You will thank yourself the next morning and you will not have missed anything, because you never, ever miss anything that happens from that time of night on, especially around Christmas.”
Wise words. And as I prepare myself for a more moderate season, this other bit of wisdom from Adrian Chiles, passed on to him by his non-drinking comedian friend Lee Mack, will be ringing, like Christchurch bells, in my ears: “Remember at all times that if Christmas is great for you, it’s probably because you’re with your loved ones and people you like that you’ve not seen for a while. It’s not because you’ve drunk so much. Don’t give alcohol all the credit. Christmas will be just as great with a little bit less of it.”
Plan ahead, set a limit, don’t be hard on yourself
Rosamund Dean’s tips for sober socialising
1 Preparation is everything. Before you go out, find out if the venue has good alcohol-free options like a nice kombucha, so you don’t panic when offered a drink and go for what everyone else is having.
2 If you’re going to drink, but don’t want to overdo it, having a plan in mind of exactly how much you’re going to have helps you stop while you’re ahead. My rule is no more than three drinks in one go.
3 Try sober socialising. It’s honestly easier than you think. If you push through the initial nerves, you’ll find it’s actually as fun, if not more so, as it comes with zero hangxiety the next morning. Your confidence will increase each time, so it only gets easier.
4 Think about who you’re going to see. You’ll have some friends who will support you in trying to drink less, but we all have those people in our lives who are less supportive. Come up with a credible excuse, such as being on antibiotics or having an early meeting in the morning. If all else fails, get the round in yourself and choose a drink that looks like booze but isn’t, such as tonic water.
5. Don’t be hard on yourself if you fall off the wagon, it happens to all of us. Aim for progress rather than perfection.
Rosamund Dean is author of Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life