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‘The biggest gift I’ve ever given myself is learning to love life without booze’: Grace Dent on being festive and sober

I was never an alcoholic before I went sober two and a half years ago. Rather, I was a classic British drinker, and never more so than at Christmas, when, just like little Aled Jones, I was walking in the air or, more accurately, three sheets to the wind from about 8 December until the end of the year. The term “alcoholic”, I thought, was for those who simply cannot face a day without a drink, but as a non-alcoholic mere “reveller”, I too couldn’t face any part of Christmas without a glass in hand.

The difference was that I did so in a sequined dress and, sometimes, an antler headband, so that was fine. If I drank four glasses of cotes du rhone after a carol service, followed by mulled wine with colleagues the next night, then champagne after shopping with friends and cocktails after ice skating, that was fine, too. I was just being festive. Traditionally, by the week before Christmas, I’d be feeling rather un-ho-ho-ho, with bloated, grey skin, a bit depressed and overwhelmed by the to-do list waiting for me.

I wouldn’t feel at all like getting stuck into the “real drinking” of Christmas and Boxing Day, but a sober Christmas was unthinkable; it would look strange and upset other people. Like all classic British drinkers (not alcoholics, remember – there is a difference), I deeply distrusted the sober. Ugh, look at them with their pinched mouths and eagle eyes observing my shortcomings, offering their prissy excuses about why they’ll drive home early, before things get “too messy”. “Susie says she’s doing yoga at 7am!” I’d hoot. “Then she’s volunteering to take the neighbours’ kids to see Santa. What a saint!” Why not be like us, Susie: the fun people, sinking egg-based cocktails, knocking back Rennies and talking rubbish until 2am.

Every Christmas morning from the 1990s onwards, I would wake up feeling bilious. My family would open presents with a glass of Asda asti spumante and top it up regularly over the course of the morning. Strangely, by the time it came to cook a three-course dinner for them all, I was usually quite grumpy, hungover and in need of a nap but was instead wrestling seven saucepans while someone reminded me they didn’t want brussels on their plate. It is no accident that for many years on EastEnders, Christmas dinner at the Queen Vic used to end midway through the main course with Phil Mitchell getting someone in a headlock. Why do we add booze to Christmas Day, then act all shocked about loose lips and short tempers? Why do we all get together, drink advocaat and recount family folklore, slightly incorrectly and annoyingly, and no one can leave because the trains and buses aren’t running?

In my 30s and 40s, I’d start each new year feeling fragile and on the back foot. I wanted to live without alcohol, but it was impossible: how would I manage work dinners, birthdays, weddings, funerals, awards ceremonies or any social occasion without a drink? Easier, I thought, just to carry on, try to moderate a bit, or drink only wine, or not after 8pm, or whatever daft rule I applied at the time, before slipping back into drinking a bit of poison every day and wondering why I felt poisoned.

Now that I’m heading into my third sober Christmas, the biggest gift I’ve ever given myself is learning to love life without booze. And I do love life now. I shall say this quietly, because it will annoy people and make them defensive, but sober Christmas is so much more fun. I feel as if I’ve got back some of those magical vibes from the 1970s, and there is little awe and wonder at the bottom of a fourth glass of eggnog.

My last drink was in August 2021, since when I’ve got my head around some of the trickier things about being sociable without recourse to numbing fluid. (It’s fine once you’ve done it half a dozen times. Failing that, keep it brief and leave: no one notices after 9pm, when everyone is repeating themselves, spitting while talking and standing on your foot.) I still go to Christmas parties, but I don’t stay long, just enough to hug people, drink a sparkling water, kombucha, shrub, Botivo, Everleaf or even a Diet Coke, which these days feels like an illicit thrill. I treasure leaving parties sober, walking through frosty, twinkly streets and getting home in time to stick Scrooged on and eat stollen.

The sober Christmas season feels so much longer, too. There are no lost mornings, no struggling through a work day in a hungover fug of Pret croissant and full-fat Coke. There’s more time to do wholesome stuff, bake gingerbread things out of Nigella’s books, go ice skating – and actually enjoy ice skating, not just stand by the bar in skates. Last Christmas Eve, I went to an indie cinema with velour seats and watched The Muppet Christmas Carol while eating a big bag of Minstrels. It was magical.

Christmas can be sad – I have lost both my parents recently – but it’s OK to feel every one of those feelings. Let them come and go. The ghosts of Christmas past don’t need to be drowned in apricot brandy. I can feel the Christmas spirit fully these days, and it’s really rather great.

  • Listen to all the episodes of Grace Dent’s Comfort Eating podcast here. Her new book of the same name is published by Guardian Faber at £20. To order a copy for £17, visit guardianbookshop.com