The holiday season means many different things to many people. For Christians, it’s the time of year to celebrate the birth of Jesus and to be thankful for loved ones. Those who are Jewish partake in an eight-day celebration to commemorate the rededication of the Second Holy Temple of Jerusalem, which remains a powerful symbol of perseverance and unity. There are a number of other beliefs that have important celebrations coinciding at this time of year, and even people who don’t ascribe to any particular faith often partake in the holiday spirit. After all, you don’t have to be religious to promote what the holidays have come to stand for: generosity, selflessness and putting others before oneself.

There are many traditions that have become synonymous with the holiday season — like decorating trees, lighting menorahs and kissing under the mistletoe — but there’s one, in particular, that could make the season far less bright. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a festive cocktail at a company Christmas party or sipping eggnog at a family gathering, alcohol has become an increasingly central part of holiday festivities for many people. Unfortunately, this makes the holiday season a dangerous time of year for those in recovery with a history of substance use problems.

The good news, however, is that you definitely don’t need alcohol to celebrate the holiday season. In fact, there are many ways to get into the holiday spirit without drinking spirits. But first, why has the consumption of alcohol come to be so strongly associated with the holidays?

Substance Abuse and the Holidays: What’s the Correlation?

Initially, it may seem that alcohol use and the holiday season should be contradictory. It’s difficult to reconcile alcoholism with the jovial demeanor that many of us have during the holiday season. However, the evidence shows that people do, in fact, drink more around the holidays. As a result, alcohol-related deaths — and alcohol-related traffic deaths1 — are significantly higher around the holidays than other times of year.2 So we should consider the possible reasons why the holiday season makes people more likely to drink than other times of year.

“As a result, alcohol-related deaths — and alcohol-related traffic deaths — are significantly higher around the holidays than other times of year.”

Virtually all individuals who develop substance abuse problems start off using that substance in ways that invite abuse. For instance, alcohol is often consumed during times of celebration.3 Therefore, it follows that during the holiday season when many people attend work parties and family functions for seasonal festivities, people are celebrating — and drinking alcohol — more frequently.

Spending lots of time in close proximity to family members can sometimes induce stress, too. Perhaps there are relatives with whom a person doesn’t particularly get along, or maybe a certain relative has had a little too much eggnog and is becoming abrasive in conversation. Furthermore, the holiday season can be stressful on its own, especially from a financial perspective. Even buying small gifts for loved ones quickly becomes expensive. No matter what the situation may be, those with a history of substance abuse problems may feel especially tempted to drink alcohol during this season.

How to Stay Sober During the Holiday Season

Whether you have a history of substance abuse or not, it’s important to know how to enjoy holiday festivities without alcohol. You may not be a recovering alcoholic, but you may have a loved one who’s in recovery. The following are three simple, yet very effective ways to celebrate the season without alcohol or other substances.

B.Y.O.A. (“Bring Your Own Alternative”)

For many people, one of the most difficult aspects of holiday sobriety is that being sober makes them feel awkward. When everyone around you has drinks in their hands, it’s hard not to feel like you stick out. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to this problem, and that’s to bring your own non-alcoholic drink, such as club soda, tonic or even fruit juice. By supplementing the alcohol in mixed drinks with your alcohol-free substitute, you’ll be able to enjoy the same social experience as everyone else without putting your sobriety at risk.

Of course, this method is predicated on a person’s confidence that he or she can attend parties at which people will be drinking alcohol. Anyone who’s new to recovery or who feels uncertain about his or her ability to remain sober in such a situation should consider other alternatives.

Don’t Overdo It

Many addicts developed their substance abuse problems because they’d been using alcohol and drugs as a way to self-medicate for situations and emotions with which they couldn’t cope. In fact, finding healthier and more effective ways to cope is one of the most vital assets to a person’s recovery. However, since the holidays can sometimes come with a lot of stress, it’s important to be aware of one’s limits. Whether it’s the financial strain of Christmas shopping, difficult relatives, or some other factor, err on the side of caution by removing yourself from the situation before you get overwhelmed. Taking some time to regroup, recharge and focus on yourself can make all the difference.

It’s also a good idea to have a holiday lifeline, or someone to whom you can go when you need to talk and get additional support.

It’s also a good idea to have a holiday lifeline, or someone to whom you can go when you need to talk and get additional support. Finally, you must be sure to take care of yourself during this time. If you’re not meeting your basic needs, many of the issues you could potentially face during the holidays could be exacerbated.

Create New, Recovery-Friendly Traditions

If you don’t feel comfortable attending events where you know there will be alcohol, you might consider organizing your own alcohol- and drug-free events. These events don’t have to be exclusively for people in recovery although that’s always an option. There are endless possibilities, so you’re limited only by your imagination. For example, you could host a group baking session by inviting some friends over to help make a few different kinds of cookies or fruit cakes that can be given as gifts.

Alternately, you could host a scrapbooking event by telling your friends to come over with a box of their favorite photos. When they arrive, everyone sits around a table to make their scrapbooks and tell stories about the events documented in their photos. Neither of these two examples involve alcohol, but either would be extremely enjoyable and memorable occasions that you could host every year as your own, recovery-friendly tradition.

Even though alcohol has become entwined with celebrating the holidays, drinking is far from the only way to get into the holiday spirit. There are many ways to protect your sobriety without having to forfeit this jovial season. Remember that this is a time for togetherness and for showing loved ones how much you care. Don’t be afraid to tell your loved ones about your preference for alcohol-free festivities, and be sure to remember these tips as we make our way into this year’s holiday season.


Written by Dane O’Leary