If our hallowed times were holy places, perhaps we would live better. If national, ethnic and religious holidays were not designations on a calendar, but actual places, maybe our abuse of alcohol would stand in better contrast to the celebrations.

Instead of living through the Christmas season, we would visit the Christmas cathedral. We would see that in great numbers we get drunk on the altar of this holy ground.

Yes, if time were space, we just might see it more clearly. The great archway of a New Year would become the largest graveyard of all these holy places. Instead of beckoning people to the future, the archway would instead become their final resting place.

Without such a view, however, we are left to ponder why so many debase the days that should call out the best of us. Why do we reduce a holiday’s rich history and meaning to an excuse to party? Several perspectives illuminate the issue to some extent, but one is left to wonder about the excess.

The simplest observation is also the most obvious. People drink more excessively during the holidays because alcohol is more available. There are more parties and social gatherings where drinking is involved. However, this does not go far enough in explaining why the environment so radically changes during holidays.

We must also consider alcohol’s function during holidays and celebrations. Holidays are times of emotional pain for many people. Even a little sadness or a touch of “the blues” can feel extreme in the midst of corporate celebration.

Alcohol acts on the central nervous system as a depressant. Rather than stimulating the holiday mood, alcohol actually inhibits the underlying emotions that get in the way of a more festive disposition. When alcohol is part of a holiday celebration, it allows people to leave behind the pain that might otherwise cloud their spirit.

However, it would be quite naive to suggest that all excessive drinking during the holidays is a response to the blues. Furthermore, holiday drinking is not a new phenomenon. The relationship between alcohol and holiday celebrations is hundreds of years old. Why make such an issue of it now?

The argument that “we have always celebrated this way” demands that we deal with a deeper issue.  Today, our poor choices can have a much more pronounced and negative impact than at any time in history. The damage to life and property by intoxicated drivers, for example, does not have a historical precedent. Assaults on women, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and tremendous property damage reach dramatic peaks during holidays.

We may no longer question the connection between getting drunk and a particular holiday’s meaning. However, we must ask why we endure the consequences of intoxication so willingly. Many people simply assume that alcohol must be an essential part of a celebration. This assumption means accepting the horrendous consequences of such excess.

This reasoning matters because it gives ownership of festivals’ meanings to the alcohol industry.  Through a constant barrage of marketing messages, those who profit from alcohol become the prophets of a holiday’s meaning.

The alcohol industry is certainly not the only source of this environment of excess. In a market economy, the society that reaps the rewards of its need to buy must also live with the consequences. It is difficult to sense this enveloping market influence, but the symptoms are everywhere.

At holy times we do more of what we do all the time; we live in excess. But it is difficult to see the irony of the situation. If time were space, perhaps we would see it more clearly.

Steve Sumerel is director of the department of family life and substance abuse, of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina‘s council on Christian life and public affairs.

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