On Convivial Consumption

By |2018-12-16T07:36:22+00:00December 16th, 2018|


Why do you drink? I mean that neither as an accusation nor as a rhetorical question, but in all sincerity, and with the emphasis on ‘you’. What are your reasons?

The simplest answer is just: beer tastes good. I wholeheartedly agree. But that’s not the end of it, right? Also: to unwind after a long workday. Or perhaps: to cool off in the summer and to warm up in the winter. Or maybe: to add some complexity and contrast to a delicious meal. These all seem like great answers to me, and I’ve got nothing against them. But notice that they have one thing in common: they are all reasons that would apply even if you were home alone – even, in fact, if you lived all alone in the forest. Now I happen to think that drinking alone gets an undeserved bad rap, but I can’t deny the virtues of thinking of beer as a social beverage, especially at this time of year. Let me give an example of what I mean.

My wife and I have a tradition of reading out loud to each other, and every December we try to re-read Charles Dickens’s classic, A Christmas Carol. We read from an annotated edition, so every now and then our reading is (happily) interrupted by our desire to learn, for example, about where Scrooge got his name (one theory is that it comes from an old English word meaning to squeeze, as a miser clutches his money; it also sounds appropriately ghostly when you stretch it out as ‘Scroooooge’).

Anyway, this year I happened to notice an annotation about the fact that Charles Dickens was often criticized for how many of his fictional scenes involve the consumption of alcohol. For example, when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to visit his younger self as an apprentice, they witness a Christmas party put on my Scrooge’s old boss, Mr. Fezziwig, and not only does the fiddler “plunge his hot face into a pot of porter”, but there is “plenty of beer” all around. And at the Cratchit Family celebration during Scrooge’s travels with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the whole family enjoys swigs from a jug filled with a hot mixture of gin and lemons.

Unsurprisingly, some readers in the mid-1800s let Dickens know that they weren’t terribly happy with the free and easy way he seemed to have with alcohol. But it turns out that Dickens wrote a reply to these critics. In a letter he says:

“I have no doubt whatever that the warm stuff in the jug at Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner, had a very pleasant effect on the simple party. I am certain that if I had been at Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, I should have taken a little Negus – and possibly not a little beer – and been none the worse for it, in heart or head. I am very sure that working people of this country have not too many household enjoyments; and I could not, in my fancy, or in actual deed, deprive them of this one when it is innocently shared. Neither do I see why I should deny it to myself.”

Dickens’s defense here is partly that moderate consumption of alcohol is an innocent and simple “enjoyment”, but I also get the sense that what really matters is that the alcohol is completely wrapped up with the idea of celebration, is part and parcel of a special moment shared with family and friends.

So, reading A Christmas Carol this year helped make vivid another powerful reason why someone might introduce a saison or three to their holiday celebrations this year: as a symbol of – and perhaps a catalyst for – really being with others. The word ‘convivial’ comes to mind, not only because it’s fun to say, but also because its literal meaning has to do with living together. So, taking just a bit of artistic license, what I want to say is this: I encourage you to use your holiday-season beer-drinking as an occasion for wholeheartedly being alive with those you love.

(And if you’ve never read the original Dickens story, do yourself a favor.)



About the Author:

Neal Tognazzini
Neal splits his life between the classroom and the taproom. He has a PhD in philosophy and is an associate professor up at Western, where he teaches courses on ethics and critical thinking, but he is also a homebrewer, BJCP National beer judge, and Certified Cicerone®. When he’s not teaching, brewing, or judging, he’s probably discussing princesses and unicorns with his 6-year-old daughter. You can contact him at nealabram@gmail.com