Ah, Christmas: the time for peace, love, laughter, and stern bollockings about how dangerous our socialising behaviour can be.
Let’s get the essential disclaimers out of the way up front. Firstly, I am aware that some people in Britain suffer from the effects of alcohol abuse, either directly or indirectly. I know that drink problems can kill, and I make no attempt to trivialise that.
Secondly, I know that Christmas is a time when many take it too far and end up vomiting in the street, visiting A&E, or worse. I have no desire to defend these people – they spoil it for the rest of us, both when they’re screeching in pubs or fighting outside, and afterwards when the vast majority of happy, convivial drinkers are demonised for the actions of a childish minority.
My problem is that reports of truly destructive behaviour are invariably accompanied by warnings from medical experts that 25% of us are drinking to hazardous levels. What they tend to omit is that the definition of ‘hazardous’ is anyone who has drunk more than the recommended daily guideline of alcohol consumption, which equates to a pint and a half of beer for men, or one pint or one medium-sized glass of wine for women.
That’s right: the shocking truth of Binge Britain is that one in four of us drinks at least two pints of beer or one large glass of wine on at least one day in any given week.
Doesn’t quite sound so 'hazardous' when you put it that way, does it?
That’s why those seeking to persuade us to cut down on our drinking turn to ever more extreme methods to scare us (fact: most of us already are cutting down. New figures released last week show overall alcohol consumption, as well as heavy drinking, have fallen yet again). There’s a deliberate blurring of the yob who drinks a bottle of whisky and trashes the place and the couple who share a bottle of wine over dinner.
Just two weeks ago, the latest horror story was that people in their forties are the latest group that are drinking themselves to death and bankrupting society as they do so. Apparently, the shocking truth is that 20% of all alcohol-related hospital admissions are comprised of people within this age band.
When I first read this, it reminded me a bit of that spoof stat about how we're all skivers because 40% of all sick days fall on a Monday or Friday.
I honestly didn’t think the figure too high: if you have been abusing alcohol for most of your adult life, you’d expect your forties to be the age when it would start to take its toll (unless you’d rather believe the alternative shock stories about how binge drinkers in their early twenties are swamping hospitals with cases of liver failure). And while health problems increase with age, older people tend to drink less (unless you'd rather believe the alternative shock stories about how the over-65s are a ticking time bomb of alcohol-related woe.)
In any case, 20% didn’t sound particularly high. And by the time I had Googled ‘UK population split by age’ and learned that there is a population spike in this age group (14.6% of us are aged 40-49, compared with 13.6% aged 20-29, 13.1% aged 30-39, 12.2% aged 50-59 and 10.8% aged 60-69) I realised that this supposed shock was a complete non-story. It’s a shame no one in the national press undertook the same due diligence before repeating it (inevitably accompanied by images of people drinking beer, of course).
Alcohol is an addictive and potentially dangerous drug – we know that, because we are told it every day. But it also happens to be intrinsic to our civilization, a constant in our history, both sacrament and everyday treat.
Like fire, alcohol kills, maims and wrecks lives every year, and has done since the Stone Age. But also like fire, alcohol is one of our greatest ever discoveries, something it's hard to imagine living without, something that has, in general, immeasurably improved the quality of our lives.
We know that fire needs to be treated with respect and caution. We understand completely that if we control it, it’s a boon, but that if we let it get out of control, it can cause devastating damage. That’s why we keep children away from it, and why there are very clear guidelines on how to handle it.
We don’t see people calling for the abolition of fire. We rarely see people blaming fire itself when it destroys. We understand that when it kills, it was either deliberate and criminal human action, a tragic accident, or the result of negligence. We might say that such tragedies show the need for better education around fire or clearer warnings, and of course that's right. But we don’t hear anyone arguing that a house fire proves we should only be allowed to cook a meal or stay warm once or twice a week.
It's a sign of our collective sickness and anxiety that anti-alcohol rhetoric peaks at Christmas.
Christmas, like birthdays and weddings, is a time of celebration. Intoxication lowers inhibitions, creates feelings of euphoria, relaxes us and helps us interact with people. We think we, and those around us, are funnier, sexier, and more interesting than when we’re sober. And as a society, we are somehow in the process of convincing ourselves that this is a bad thing.
If alcohol were that bad for us, we probably wouldn’t be here now. Because in the past we drank a hell of a lot more alcohol than we do today.
If it were that bad for us, the other piece of booze related news last week – the latest in a long line of studies that proves yet again that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotallers as well as alcoholics – would never have appeared.
So this Christmas, don’t drink responsibly - not all the time. Christmas is a holiday from our day-to-day responsibilities, and that’s why it exists, as an essential safety valve from our lives.
Don’t drink to black out. Don’t drink till you throw up. Don’t drink to punish yourself or others. That’s the behaviour that suggests you have a problem in life that isn’t drink itself.
But do drink more than two units per day for men or 1.5 units for women. Drink until you feel like singing. Drink until you feel epic and marvellous. Drink until you feel confident and comfortable enough to ask out that person from work on a date. Drink until you feel a hangover the next day, on a day when having a hangover doesn't matter, and reflect on the yin and yang, on our ability to heighten euphoria to new levels and then take the knocks for it the next day with good grace.
Christ’s first miracle – if you believe that particular superstition – was turning water into wine at the wedding in Canaan. According to the Bible – and I think this is a fairly close translation from the original script – the saviour of mankind announced his presence on Earth by getting people shitfaced and showing them a good time.
So don’t get drunk every day over Christmas. But do get drunk at least once. And if they complain, tell our Puritan overlords that it’s what the Baby Jesus would have wanted.
Merry, merry Christmas.