Does it really matter if you don’t drink alcohol at Christmas?

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By Professor Isabelle Szmigin
Department of Marketing, University of Birmingham

Firstly, let me say that I cannot answer the question as I do drink alcohol. I do, however, live with someone who has not had an alcoholic drink for over 30 years, so I have some vicarious understanding of one person’s view. But in a way that is the problem; I, like many others, only have a few experiences of non-drinkers rather than the lots of experiences I have of drinkers. But just as I wouldn’t identify my drinking friends by their alcohol consumption, why should I do the same for those who choose not to drink?

Why is drinking alcohol apparently such a central part of having fun at Christmas? At this time of year where there is a strong and ever-present exhortation to purchase alcohol for the Christmas celebrations, it is worth thinking a little more about those who choose not to drink alcohol.

Identity and alcohol consumption is an important issue. For years non-drinkers have been labelled, – dry, on the wagon, teetotal, temperance advocate, sober – all terms used to identify someone who does not drink alcohol. While social media influencers are giving a voice to being described as sober, shouldn’t we look to a time when we don’t need any terms to describe people who choose not to drink alcohol, because for most people your identity is not defined by whether you drink or not.

It’s a long time since the temperance movement, which began in the 18th century, built an identity around abstinence as a virtue but there were practical reasons for the movement, namely the need for sober machine workers at the start of the industrial revolution following a time when alcohol was freely consumed at all times of day (Blocker , 1989). But moving to the present day, do people who don’t drink want to be labelled and identified as non-drinkers? Some do and some don’t, there are perhaps advantages for both.

If you google ‘sober at Christmas’ you will find over 37 million hits, most of them are aimed at people who want to curb their excessive alcohol consumption, but what about the others that just don’t drink alcohol. They don’t all want to be identified as ‘non-drinkers’, rather many just want a place and space where they can be part of a social group without worrying about whether or not they are drinking alcohol and recently this has become a more normal phenomenon.

So this is a plea for recognising that there are many ways to enjoy the festive season and remembering that those who have fun without alcohol, don’t need to be labelled or made to feel that they have to make an excuse for themselves. Let’s embrace the many and different ways we appreciate this time of year.

Blocker, J. S. (1989) American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform. Twayne Publishers

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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