Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

Just Say No to abstinence this January

(Photo: iStock)

Today’s a day for waltzes from Vienna and loafing around on one of the three days of the year when people actually stop work. But tomorrow, it’s going to be business as usual – only worse. The retail sector goes all glum on 2 January. It’s out with the party food, the charcuterie platters, port and anything featuring mincemeat, and in with smoothies, salads and plant-based ready meals, plus a focus on fitness gear in the clothing department. Oh and alcohol free everything for the teetotal binge that is Dry January. 

January never was a time for abstinence; it was a time for sociability and eating well

Can we not see how bizarre, how unnatural all this is? The absurdity that is Dry January is a decade old, and for almost as long as that I’ve sought every year to persuade the nation – all right, a couple of friends – that it’s wrong, wrong, wrong, especially if you’re even remotely Christian. We are bang in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas which starts on Christmas Eve and finishes on the 6 January with the Epiphany. The rest of Europe is still celebrating in a modest way; it’s the Brits, with their genius for misplaced cultural neology, who are trying to turn the real festive season into a period of fast and abstinence. Personally I blame stupid women’s magazines for their annual focus on ‘New Year, New You’ – cue for a miserabilist diet. 

Let’s instead follow the seasons. Let’s stick with the Christmas season, which not only goes on until the 6 January, but doesn’t, liturgically speaking, stop then but goes into a decrescendo until Candlemas on 2 February. January never was a time for abstinence; it was a time for sociability and eating well. Indeed as the social historians Nick Groom (The Seasons) and Ronald Hutton (Stations of the Sun) made clear, it was only the Victorians who actually got the Christmas holidays truncated in the interests of getting the workforce back in harness as soon as possible.

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