University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

Dry January: ‘a secular penance’?

Kat Cheeseman

ByThe Badger

Feb 9, 2016

Since time immemorial, our partially evolved and imperfect species have marked and charted the passing of our days not simply by the cycles of the moon, or the changing of the seasons, but through various cultural and liturgical calendars. These events of customary public worship seem to afford a necessary sense of purpose to many of us, according to our particular individual beliefs, customs and traditions.

However, as we progress into an increasingly secular and pluralistic society the want for new, and more specifically universal, public festivals is most evidently on the increase – these are more often than not fashioned from renewed, rebranded and reinvented traditional Christian festivals. Those familiar with Seinfeld will undoubtedly have mouthed the word ‘Festivus’ whilst they skimmed the previous sentence. To all those that didn’t, mark it down under ‘required viewing’.

I invariably find this refashioning a little cheap and unnecessary, but it certainly is no bad thing. I am not going to be as trite as to exclaim: ‘We must put the Christ back into Christmas’. Frankly, I don’t care. And even if I did, it’s hardly topical. The excessive consumption encouraged over the consumerist Christmas and New Year period doesn’t particularly amaze or interest me. Any excuse will do. In the words of Tom Lehrer’s fantastic A Christmas Carol:

Fill the cup and don’t say “when”

Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens

Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens

Even though the prospect sickens

Brother, here we go again.

Nevertheless, what does intrigue me is the zealous nature of the public ‘detox’ that follows in its wake. The coercive nature of which seems soon to rival that of the festivities that precede it.

This new liturgy, the rather uninspiringly titled ‘Dry January’, is a newfound secular penance with all the solemn religious observance of a profane lent. It initially seems an unlikely phenomenon, but one that increases in popularity year on year. Why is this?

Well, I would opine it serves as just that: a secular penance. Unlike ‘Stoptober’, it does not seek to engender in its participants a lifelong lifestyle change, rather a month’s worth of repentance. An annual atonement for one’s alcoholism. A penitence for Prosseco.

This is not simply for the sake of one’s of own health and self-preservation. If it were, a moderation of one’s intake over the course of the year would be the obvious approach. Nor is it simply a substitute for some vague ‘spiritual’ requirement. It thrives partly on one’s own vanity, on the virial ‘virtue-signalling’ that exists in the culture of social media.

You gain yourself approval in the eyes of your peers, who wake up bleary eyed to your initial status on New Year’s Day. You are lauded with ever-fainter praise for your weekly statuses announcing a triumph over some ‘temptation’ or other over the course of the month. Ultimately, it all culminates in rapturous applause on February 1st as you exultantly share your statement of intent (‘to get utterly inebriated’ in as many words), accompanied with photo of yourself with a glass in hand. I suppose it proves that without all other indulgence, self-indulgence will have to suffice.

But in the end, I can’t really complain. Each to their own, I say. I appreciated that the bars are quieter, if only for a month, and I am free to enjoy my Martini in relative peace – fortunately the only thing that’s ‘dry’ in my month of January.

James Munro


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