A look back at what makes alcohol a friend of merriment through history.
Imagine heading to a pub with your friends to celebrate an occasion and placing your order with the exasperated bartender, who’s endeavouring to avoid eye contact and take your order. “What drink would you like?” turns into a silly set of questions, more often than not, which includes “What’s the occasion?” The answers may be apparent, but you often need to be prepared to face such interrogations.
From the Roman Saturnalia and the Bacchanalia of Ancient Greece, to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Rio, Notting Hill and every carnival, festival, jubilee and feast in between, almost all cultures associate alcohol with celebration. The connect between drinking and festivity is so strong that we often find it hard to imagine one without the other.
Although the interdependence on alcohol and festivity is obvious in all societies that use alcohol, it appears stronger in ambivalent drinking cultures, where one needs a reason to drink. These can be compared to integrated drinking cultures where drinking is a moral, neutral element of life, which requires no justification.
Wine in France — not spirits and beer — is considered a suitable accompaniment to a meal. It’s also an appropriate drink for celebratory events. Beer, in turn, is most appropriate for informal, relaxation-oriented occasions. It also signifies social status in countries like Poland, where wine is regarded as a high-status, middle-class drink, while beer and vodka are ordinary for the working class. In France, again, the aperitif is drunk before the meal, white wine is served before the red, brandy and digestifs are served only at the end of the meal. These clearly define culture, and traditional practices.
Certain drinks have become symbols of national identities: Guinness for the Irish, tequila for the Mexicans, vodka for the Poles and Russians, whisky for Scots, and so on. To choose, serve — or, indeed, refuse — one’s national drinks can be a powerful expression of their loyalties and cultural identities. The ‘national drink’ is often the symbolic locus for positive, even idealised or romanticised images of culture and the way of life. In Peru, alcohol is consumed before any work requiring strength or energy, such as roofing, sowing, and other communal work. The belief is that a tipple gives the user power and will to perform his duties.
Whether alcohol is measured as a social integrator, status indicator, situation definer, or even simply signifies drinking culture, it punctuates our lives from the cradle to the grave. A few drinks to ‘wet the baby’s head’ is a common practice in many cultures. In Poland, christenings are celebrated at local taverns! The drinks are an integral part of the ritual celebrations for all major life-cycle events: first the hair-cutting ceremony for the boys, the ear-piercing ceremony for the girls, confirmation, birthdays, marriages and funerals.
Despite the questions of why and what, the fact remains that drinking is an essential element of celebration and social bonding; the choice of your drink is rarely a matter of personal taste. So, what are we celebrating?
Ketan is a food and beverage manager with MARS Hospitality