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East London Humanist chair Paul Kaufman is drinking in the festive spirit

PUBLISHED: 12:10 21 December 2016 | UPDATED: 12:10 21 December 2016

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This is a good time of year to talk about uplifting spirits. I speak of the alchoholic variety rather than the religious! Drink has been enjoyed since time immemorial by civilisations around the globe. Of course, before I am lambasted for being irresponsible or insensitive, it has also caused illness and misery and is often behind violent and anti-social behaviour. But for many it has proved to be a welcome social lubricant associated with conviviality, friendship and pleasure.

The love of the ancient Greeks and Romans for the fruit of the vine is well known, the Roman God Bacchus being long associated with festivity. A massive mead hall is central to the medieval English epic poem Beowulf. Alcohol has also featured in the culture of many of the religions of more recent times. A beautiful example from an earlier Islamic period in Persia is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: ‘A book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou…..’. Alcohol was prominent as well in the court of the great Mughal Empire which dominated the Indian subcontinent, and beyond, prior to the British invasion.

Other Abrahamic faiths also have a long association with wine. Kiddush, for example, is a blessing recited over wine to sanctify Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Communion wine is used by many churches to celebrate the Eucharist. In fact, it was the production of implausible amounts of communion wine that saved the wine industry from going under during the prohibition period in California.

One of my lasting if hazy memories is of attending a traditional Sikh wedding where each table was adorned with bottles of spirits. Sake, or rice wine, makes a potent accompaniment to a Japanese meal, and China has a history of spirit production going back over 5,000 years. So the seasonal call to ‘Eat, Drink and be Merry’ is pretty much universally understood, even if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak.

If you do indulge this Christmas, make sure you do so responsibly. More from Paul


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