How to include non-drinkers in your festive cheer

OPINION: People abstain from alcohol for all kinds of reasons, none of which are your business. Here are five ways to make the teetotaler in your life feel welcome, writes Corey Mintz
By Corey Mintz - Published on December 18, 2018
holiday drinks in mugs
There are many reasons, such as pregnancy and religious prohibition, that guests don’t drink at holiday parties. (iStock.com/vasiliybudarin)

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While good feelings abound this time of year, the holidays are, for many, a time for feeling left out.

Growing up, I was always excited about getting a two-week break from school around Christmas. But as a Jew, I knew that everything else about the season, all the cultural programming, was not for me. My father made me change the channel if he found me watching a Christmas movie or even a Christmas episode of a sitcom. At school, when we were supposed to colour in pictures of Santa Claus, I showed my teacher a note that forbade me from participating in Christmas activities. She sent me into the hallway for an hour.

As adults, we tend to feel left out when it seems as if everyone else is enjoying something. Many of us don’t celebrate Christmas. Or we struggle with loneliness. Or we can’t afford to engage in all the consumerism. Or we don’t drink.

There are many reasons that guests don’t drink at holiday parties. It could be that they’re pregnant or adhere to a religion that prohibits alcohol. It could be that they are recovering addicts, on health-related diets, or take medications that react badly with alcohol. Maybe they’re pilots and are flying the next morning. Maybe they just don’t like to drink.

Whatever the reason, a host’s job is to make their guests feel good. So here are some tips for making sure that non-drinkers at your holiday gathering feel welcome.

  1. Don’t be surprised, and don’t ask why. If a guest declines a drink or tells you that they don’t drink, don’t look at them as if they’ve just told you that they live in a hot-air balloon. In Canada, 22 per cent of adults don’t drink at all. That’s more teetotalers than left-handed people (who make up just 10 per cent of the population). And you wouldn’t be shocked to meet a southpaw. There could many reasons that your guest isn’t drinking — but don’t ask about them. If they want you to know about their religion, recovery, pregnancy, or anything else, they’ll volunteer the information.
  2. Almost as important as not asking why is not asking how. You may wonder whether it’s weird for your non-drinking friend to be around a bunch of drunk people. Well, it is or it isn’t. Either way, they’ve sorted it out. They have gotten used to the social imbalance and have recalibrated themselves accordingly. If they are bored by a group of too-loud drunkards, they can leave. But they don’t need you to make them feel self-conscious about the fact that they’re not having the same experience as everyone else.
  3. Have good non-alcoholic drinks on offer. I have a friend who’s been sober for about 20 years. When he comes over, I make sure to have club soda, which he drinks by the gallon. For special occasions, you can do better than that — soda and juice are easy solutions. But if you’re a host putting together a drinks menu or hiring a bartender for the night, put some thought into non-alcoholic cocktails. There are products like Ceder’s, a kind of alcohol-free gin. The Canadian company PremiumNearBeer.com distributes non-alcoholic wine and spirits (including gin, rum, vermouth, and whisky) and makes Partake, a non-alcoholic craft beer. Think about combining products such as these to create options that are delicious and fun to sip. Seedlip makes a series of sugar-free distilled drinks flavoured with oaky cardamom, spicy orange lemongrass, or peas and hay. “When I was bartending full-time in cocktail bars,” says Sarah Parniak, a brand ambassador for the company, “I poured so many ginger ales into champagne flutes and had so many people whisper at me to make their soda water look like a gin and tonic — just so they could avoid those questions and that stigma.”
  4. Stop pushing. A good host makes sure everyone has something to drink and someone to talk to. But there’s a fine line between keeping the refreshments flowing and pressing people to drink more. Switch out the phrase “You don’t have a drink?” for “Can I bring you anything?”
  5. Remember that we’re not all the same. Parties are weird for most anyone over 30. We’re probably not new in town anymore. We’re not looking to make new friends. We don’t really want to go out past 8 p.m. And we’ve learned that karaoke should only ever be one verse and one chorus, not the whole song. As we grow wary of parties, we search for common ground with the people we meet. And as we celebrate our shared interests in food, clothing, shower tiles, etc., we sometimes accidentally make people feel unwelcome because they don’t participate in something that seems universal. Like drinking — even though nearly a quarter of Canadians don’t drink. Think about how attitudes toward vegetarianism have changed: we used to be rotten to vegetarians, but that’s not the case anymore. Restaurants have more menu choices. Relatives know to make lots of options to accommodate everyone during the holidays. We should be able to afford non-drinkers the same courtesy. Don’t make them ask for something special. Present them with options. When you set up a bar that includes juice, soda, and non-alcoholic spirits, you let your guests know that you’re thinking of their needs. And that’s what hosting is about.
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