One way to approach this question is to ask how one can drink like a saint — that is, enjoy alcohol the way it was meant by God to be enjoyed. There are five simple answers. To drink like a saint, one must drink with …
Obviously, moderation is the morally responsible thing to do, but it is also the most pleasant. It is when one eats or drinks to excess that one starts to receive diminishing returns on one’s investment. Moderation is also conducive to health, which is why historically Christian communities like the Catholic Church have condoned the use and even development of alcohol, from the perfection of beer in the medieval cloister to the invention of whiskey by Irish monks as a cure for paralysis of the tongue (no kidding). Finally, moderation is ideal for good conversation. For the goal is to loosen the tongue just enough for more open exchanges without having it reel away from rational and intelligent discourse.
Gratitude is a natural companion of moderation, for as G.K. Chesterton puts it, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” Gratitude is a much-ignored virtue these days, as we live in an age more focused on what others owe us (our rights) than on what we owe others, be it our friends, our ancestors, or our Maker. Such a focus, however, only engenders a sense of entitlement that leads to constant dissatisfaction and resentment. A thankful soul, on the other hand, is a happy soul. “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought,” quoting again the immortal Chesterton, “and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” It is a hidden joy to acknowledge a gift undeservedly given and to raise a glass in its honor.
Gratitude relies on memory: How can we be grateful if we do not remember what has been bequeathed to us? Indeed, one of the crucial distinctions between healthy and unhealthy drinking is that the healthy drinker drinks to remember while the unhealthy drinker drinks to forget. Consider the difference between the festivity at a truly joyous wedding and the misery of a poor sot drinking alone at the corner of a bar. At a joyous wedding, multiple generations gather to celebrate not only the love between a young couple but a long array of love that binds the lovers of the past to those of the present. And when they toast, they toast to remember that hallowed chain of love. By contrast, the morose and solitary drinker in the bar drinks to obliterate memories of his dead-end job, his failed romances, his thinning hair. Drinking to forget is as remote from drinking to remember as pornography is from art.
Another difference between good drinking and bad lies in the difference between merriment and fun. There is nothing wrong with having fun, but it is an activity that can be done alone, like a teenager playing a video game in his room. The distinctiveness of merriment, on the other hand, is that it relies on fellowship — hence the phrase, “the more the merrier.” Merriment presupposes strong community and a truly divine and memorable reason to celebrate: think of how absurd it would be to say “Merry Administrative Professionals’ Day.” But “Merry Christmas” still has meaning, and not just because Christ’s Mass is mentioned. When we wish someone to be merry on Our Lord’s birthday, aren’t we hoping that they will have more than just a good time? Aren’t we invoking a kind of blessing upon them? There is almost something sacred about genuine merriment.
Finally, drinking like a saint involves ritual. Ritual, of course, sounds like a buzzkill, the very opposite of merriment. But closer examination reveals that ritual does not kill joy but channels it and enriches it. For example, our social rituals — things as simple as giving our name and shaking hands when we meet someone new — do not stifle our interactions but constitute a shared playbook that alleviates anxiety and allows us to get to know each other.
In the realm of drinking, there are two simple rituals we should not forget. First is the toast, a tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks who poured libations in memory of their gods. Toasts need not be wordy or clever; even the simplest aspiration said aloud is enough to turn an amorphous get-together into a real event, for it crystallizes our attention and gives us a unifying reason to celebrate.
Second is the clinking of glasses, which according to some historians is a Christian innovation meant to imitate the sound of pealing bells driving away demons. These simple gestures take on added meaning during the Advent and Christmas seasons, when we ritually anticipate and rejoice in the Word made flesh at the same time that we honor those saints whose feast days flank, as it were, the Lord’s manger.
Keeping these five lessons in mind can save us from the stress and doldrums that all too often mar holiday celebrations. May the joys of this sacred season gladden your hearts now and throughout the year. Wassail!