Alcoholism and the Holidays

Alcoholism and the holidays header

For most people, the holidays are a time to celebrate with friends, family and loved ones. Alcohol consumption plays a major role in many of these celebrations: a few pints on St. Patrick’s Day, tequila shots on Cinco de Mayo (sales double on that day[1]), hard cider for Halloween, or champagne on New Year’s Eve. Most alcohol users are able to drink responsibly, but a small number of them regularly drink to excess on holidays.Alcohol abuse is already a problem for a number of Americans. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that in 2013, among people aged 12 and up:

  • Nearly 137 million people had used alcohol in the last month.
  • Nearly 60 million people binge drank in the last month (drank five or more drinks on one occasion).
  • More than 16.5 million people drank heavily in the last month (binge drank on at least five occasions).[2]

alcohol stat

A number of holidays actively encourage drinking, including:

  • Super Bowl Sunday
  • Mardis Gras
  • Patrick’s Day
  • Cinco de Mayo
  • Fourth of July
  • Labor Day
  • Halloween
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas
  • New Year’s

The $49 billion distilled-spirits industry in 2007 generated over 25 percent of its profits between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.[3] This is not surprising, given that research suggests that people who are actively celebrating a holiday are more likely to drink past the point of intoxication than those who are not celebrating.[4]

Holiday Drinking Mortality: Get the Statistics

A study of Finnish holidays like Midsummer and May Day, as well as Christmas and New Year’s, found that levels of alcohol intoxication-related deaths were 1.5 to 2.9 times as likely.[5] New Year’s is a particular culprit in the United States as well – San Francisco emergency department reported that 70 percent of its visits on New Year’s Eve were for alcohol intoxication in 2010.[6]

In addition to the risk of alcohol overdose itself, excessive and binge alcohol use also puts a terrific strain on the heart. High blood alcohol levels increase the risk of irregular heartbeat, heart attack, and stroke.[7] In fact, alcohol-triggered heartbeat irregularities caused by holiday drink are so common that a term was coined in the 1970s to describe them: “holiday heart.”[8] Other monikers include the “Merry Christmas Coronary” and the “Happy New Year Heart Attack,”[9] used to describe the substantial spikes in cardiac deaths that occur on those two days.[10]

drunk drivers stat

The ethanol in alcoholic drinks might not be the only thing to blame. Alcohol also contains compounds called phenols and polyphenols. These can slow the breakdown of adrenaline and other stimulating hormones in the body.[11] Holiday excitement or stress may cause adrenaline to be at a high, and if it can’t break down at a healthy pace, adrenaline can accumulate in the body and overstress the heart.

In addition to cardiac deaths, alcohol-related traffic fatalities also rise significantly during the holidays.

  • During certain holidays, alcohol-related driving deaths can cause up to 50 to 59 percent of all traffic deaths.[12]
  • Two to three times as many people die on Christmas and New Year’s in car crashes caused by alcohol than during comparable periods throughout the rest of the year. An alcohol-impaired driver is involved in 40 percent of traffic fatalities during these holidays.[13]
  • In 2010, 31 percent of highway traffic deaths were caused by drunk drivers.[14]
    • During Thanksgiving (including “Blackout Wednesday” and the weekend that follows Thanksgiving), this number rose to 40 percent.
    • During Christmas (including Christmas Eve and the nearest weekend), this number rose to 37 percent.
    • During New Year’s (including the surrounding weekend), this number rose to 48 percent.
      • On New Year’s Day, this number is as high as 57 percent.

What Is Blackout Wednesday?

The day before Thanksgiving is a surprisingly popular binge drinking day. Many people have the day off work and begin the holiday early, especially if they are going out with work friends or if they have to deal with the stress of family visiting from out of town. Others may find that old friends have returned for the holiday and are free the day before to go out drinking and catch up.

Holidays and Excessive Drinking

Why do the holidays promote excessive drinking?

  • Alcohol is so prevalent during the holidays that it can be difficult to avoid – cider, punch, eggnog, and other holiday beverages can all have an extra ingredient.
  • Holidays may seem like a special time, apart from the rest of the year, when alcohol use is a special treat and indulgence doesn’t count.
  • Holiday rituals, such as toasts, impose social pressure to participate in drinking.
  • Work parties can also create social pressure to join in on the drinking.
  • Gifts often take the form of alcohol, particularly wine or liquor.
  • Increased levels of alcohol-related advertising can be constant reminders of alcohol.
  • Travel can break normal routines and generate a great deal of stress, which many people self-medicate by drinking.
  • Meeting old friends may create additional excuses to drink, such as going out to a bar.
  • Dealing with family members can be a delight for some, but for many, it can also generate its own forms of stress, especially if the family members are already feeling strained themselves.
  • For people without family or close friends, the holidays can be a time that presents constant reminders of loneliness.
  • Even for people with family, missing a loved one who is absent or deceased can also drive drinking.
  • Holidays can impose financial stress as well, such as finding the extra money to cover plane tickets or gifts for the children.
  • During the winter holidays, seasonal depression may flare up, triggering people to self-medicate.

Bringing Out the Worst

The amount of alcohol someone drinks isn’t the only factor to keep in mind – there’s also the question of how it will affect them. Many people who do not usually drink large amounts may have a low alcohol tolerance, and find that keeping up with friends or family can take them too far. Additionally, the expectation of drinking at parties and other festive occasions creates an air of permissiveness that excuses many drunken behaviors that would normally be unacceptable.

A survey found that 60 percent of people who attended workplace or family holiday parties saw someone behave inappropriately after consuming too much alcohol, including:

  • Swearing excessively
  • Sharing inappropriate details
  • Throwing up
  • Making inappropriate sexual advances
  • Acting violently or abusively
  • Driving or attempting to drive[15]
justification to drink more

In another survey among adults aged 21 and up, the same organization also found that nearly 60 percent of people report that they think alcohol makes a party more fun.[16] Additionally, almost 40 percent say that they or someone they know have used the holidays as a justification to drink larger amounts of alcohol than they normally would.

Staying Safe

Tips for Drinkers

  • Have a full stomach. Alcohol will absorb into your bloodstream more slowly if you’ve eaten before you drink. Continue to eat throughout the event, if snacks are available. Keep an eye out for vitamin B6, which can reduce hangover symptoms the following day.[17] Vitamin B6 can be found in fish, poultry, organ meats, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and non-citrus fruits.[18] Protein and carbohydrates will also help.
  • Decide beforehand how much you’re going to drink. Pick the number of drinks you think you should stop at, and stick to that number. You may find it helpful to tell a friend who is attending the event with you. Be ready to say no if someone offers you additional drinks after you reach your limit. Ask your friends to help hold you accountable.
  • Know what you’re drinking. If there’s a mixed drink, such as punch, use caution. Sugary flavors can mask a great deal of alcohol, and if you don’t know how strong something is, you may accidentally have too much.
  • Pace yourself. Have no more than one drink per hour. A standard drink amounts to about 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.[19]
  • Space your drinks. Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks. Not only will this help you pace yourself and stay hydrated, but it will give you something to hold in between alcoholic drinks.
  • Have a plan to get home safely Look up public transit routes and schedules beforehand. If you plan to take a cab home, make sure that you have enough cash to pay the driver or that they accept credit cards. If you will be getting a ride from a friend, ensure that they haven’t been drinking. Have a backup plan in case the first plan doesn’t work out.
  • Take it easy. If you drank enough to get hungover, your thinking and reaction times will still be impaired the following day.[20] If you know in advance you’ll be drinking that much, plan to not have to drive or have any major responsibilities the following day.

Tips for Party Hosts

  • Don’t pressure your guests to drink.
  • Offer a range of non-alcoholic drinks, such as sparkling cider, soda, fruit juice or bottled water.
  • Offer a good selection of food, especially protein or carbohydrates, so guests aren’t drinking on an empty stomach.
  • Stop serving alcohol a couple hours before the end of the party to give guests time to sober up.
  • If one of your guests has become visibly intoxicated, don’t serve them any more alcohol.
  • If any guests are drunk, or even tipsy, don’t let them drive home.
    • There’s no way to make a drunk person sober up faster – coffee or a cold shower won’t make a difference; only time will. They just have to wait it out.

Making It Through the Season Sober

For recovering alcoholics, the holiday season can be fraught with temptations. Try these tips to help get through the season sober:

  • Find a non-alcoholic beverage that you can enjoy that is easily portable. Bring some with you if you’re not sure if there will be non-alcoholic drinks at the event. Giving yourself something tasty to drink will give you a diversion from cravings, give you something to hold onto, and may deter other people from offering you another drink.
  • Have a response prepared for why you’re not drinking that evening.
    • “I’m the designated driver, so I’m not drinking.”
    • “I take a medication that can’t be combined with alcohol.”
    • “I don’t drink anymore.”
  • Identify a friend or ally who will be at the event and who can help lend extra emotional support if you need it.
  • Ask a friend, family member or sponsor to be on-call in case you need to check in during the event to get extra support.
  • Be careful with holiday foods and beverages – a wide range of them can contain alcohol:
    • Fruit cake
    • Liqueur cake
    • Rum cake
    • Liqueur chocolates
    • Eggnog
    • Cider
    • Punch
  • Prepare an escape plan so you can leave the event early if you start feeling tempted to drink. Decide in advance whether you’ll take your own car or public transportation.
  • Be choosy about which events you attend. Go to events you’ll actually enjoy, rather than attending to please others. Try to avoid events where you know you’ll be tempted to drink or be around people who will encourage you to drink.
  • Try some new activities that can distract you during this season. Volunteering at a food kitchen or charity can bring a real sense of fulfillment as well as introduce you to new friends. Or get some friends together to see a movie or go ice skating. Now is also a good time to focus on work or hobbies to fill your free time.
  • Take care of yourself – eat well, get enough sleep, exercise and don’t neglect your hygiene. If you’re healthy and composed, you’ll be better able to do what’s necessary to stay sober.
  • Attend meetings. If you attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or some other support group, the holidays are a particularly important time to attend meetings. Find your local AA office, which can give you information about AA meetings near you.


[1]Tequila Sales Double on Cinco de Mayo.” (April 30, 2013). Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[2]2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” (September 4, 2014). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[3]Department of Health Encourages Vermonters to Enjoy a Sober Holiday.” (December 24, 2007). Vermont Department of Health. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[4] Glindemann, K.E. (May 2007). “Celebratory Drinking and Intoxication: A Contextual Influence on Alcohol Consumption.” Environment and Behavior. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[5] Mäkelä, P., Martikainen, P., and Nihtilä, E. (August 2005). “Temporal variation in deaths related to alcohol intoxication and drinking.” International Journal of Epidemiology. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[6] Kim, L. (December 20, 2011). “Heart Attacks, Other Emergencies Spike During Holidays.” University of California San Francisco. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[7]Alcohol and Heart Health.” (n/a) American Heart Association. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[8] Ettinger, P.O., Wu, C.F., De La Cruz, C., Weisse, A.B., Ahmed, S.S., and Regan, T.J. (May 1978). “Arrhythmias and the “Holiday Heart”: Alcohol-associated cardiac rhythm disorders.” American Heart Journal. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[9] Kloner, R.A. (2004). “The “Merry Christmas Coronary” and “Happy New Year Heart Attack” Phenomenon.” Circulation. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[10] Phillips, D.P., Jarvinen, J.R., Abrahamson, I.S., and Phillips, R.R. (2004). “Cardiac Mortality Is Higher Around Christmas and New Year’s Than at Any Other Time.” Circulation. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[11] Eagle, K. (June 8, 2012). “Holiday sudden cardiac death: food and alcohol inhibition of SULT1A enzymes as a precipitant.” Journal of Applied Toxicology. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[12]Alcohol-Related Fatalities Around the Holidays.” (November 23, 2011). The Wall Street Journal. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[13]New Year, Old Myths, New Fatalities: Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths Jump During Christmas and New Year’s.” (December 2013). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[14]MADD’s “Tie One On For Safety” Holiday Campaign Cautions Drivers as More Highway Deaths Caused by Drunk Driving.” (November 13, 2012). Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[15] “Many Americans Oblivious To What High-Risk Drinking Looks Like.” (November 19, 2013). Harris Interactive on behalf of Caron Treatment Centers. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[16] “Hungover at Work During the Holiday Season?” (November 27, 2012). Harris Interactive on behalf of Caron Treatment Centers. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[17] Barclay, R. (November 29, 2013). “The Truth About Hangover Cures: What Works.” Healthline. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[18]Vitamin B6.” (September 15, 2011). National Institutes of Health. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[19]Frequently Asked Questions.” (March 14, 2014). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[20] Barclay, R. (November 29, 2013). “The Truth About Hangover Cures: What Works.” Healthline. Accessed November 22, 2014.