7 Dos and Don’ts of Celebrating With Sober (and Not Drinking) Friends This Holiday Season

Photo: Stocksy/Brat Co
For many, the holiday season is synonymous with celebrating, and celebrating goes hand-in-hand with booze. This reality can make it an uncomfortable time for folks who don’t drink alcohol (whether they’re on a lifelong sobriety journey, or leading a sober- or sober-curious lifestyle for health or other personal reasons). But in the company of supportive loved ones, it certainly doesn’t have to be. Even if you’re planning to imbibe at holiday parties, learning how to support sober friends and family members during the holidays can ensure that everyone is feeling comfortable and included—right on par with the spirit of the season, after all.

From the outset, it’s important to acknowledge the basic fact that, despite societal pressure to the contrary, not drinking alcohol is “a perfectly normal thing,” says Nick Bodkins, co-founder and CEO of alcohol-free drink retailer Boisson. And generally speaking, the best way to support sober friends during the holidays is to simply act like that’s the case by perceiving their decision to not drink as an equally-valid default as someone else’s decision to drink, he says.

“We’re finally beginning to recognize that alcohol doesn’t have to ‘own’ celebration, connection, and socializing.” —Emily Heintz, founder of alcohol-free drink retailer Sèchey

That certainly extends to celebratory events, too. Just because something is a party doesn’t make it abnormal for someone to abstain from alcohol—in the same way that, again, it isn’t strange to abstain on any given day. “At a societal level, we’re finally beginning to recognize that alcohol doesn’t have to ‘own’ celebration, connection, and socializing,” says Emily Heintz, founder of alcohol-free drink retailer Sèchey.

Abiding by that philosophy can help loved ones who are deciding against alcohol for any reason feel more included in your presence. Below, find seven tips from experts in sobriety for doing just that this holiday season.

7 dos and don’ts of celebrating the holidays with sober friends and family members

1. Do offer non-alcoholic options that are comparable to alcoholic ones, if you’re hosting

Long gone are the days of juice masquerading as an adult beverage. ICYMI: The drinks market has been overflowing with new alcohol alternatives over the past couple years. There are zero-proof versions of everything from gin and tequila to wine and beer to canned cocktails in bottle shops and on drink menus alongside alcohol alternatives that defy categorization—like the hemp-infused spirit Aplós and the functional-mushroom elixir Solbrü.

“There are so many amazing zero-proof replacements that can make someone feel like they’re drinking and that maintain the celebratory nature and the ceremony of making or pouring a drink but with no alcohol,” says Heintz. And by stocking your home bar cart with some of these options, or picking up, say, an alcohol-free sparkling wine for your holiday party, you’ll ensure that sober friends feel included in the festivities—because “nobody wants to toast with water or coffee,” says Heintz.

On the cocktail front, in particular, Heintz recommends keeping a zero-proof bourbon alternative (like Spiritless Kentucky 74) on deck for alcohol-free Manhattans or Old Fashioneds this holiday season, as well as alcohol-free bitters (like the ones from All the Bitter) and syrups (like the Tonic Syrup from El Guapo), which “many don’t realize have some alcohol content in their traditional forms,” she says. Having these alternatives available makes it easy for sober guests to whip up any number of sophisticated drinks without worrying about consuming any alcohol.

Another idea is to prepare a signature drink in advance that “tastes great with alcohol but is just as good without,” says Bodkins, who recommends checking out the newly released Boisson app for recipe inspiration. “Just mix it up ahead of time, pour it into two pitchers, and add alcohol to one but not the other,” he says. (And be sure to label them clearly.) When you’re inviting people, you can also add a note to your invitation stating that “alcoholic and alcohol-free beverages will be provided,” Bodkins suggests, so that sober and sober-curious friends know in advance that there will be options available explicitly for them.

2. Do have non-alcoholic drinks available that aren’t reminiscent of an alcoholic drink

It’s very possible that someone who doesn’t drink because of a negative relationship with alcohol or someone who is permanently sober because of addiction issues may not want to drink anything that even resembles an alcoholic beverage, says Heintz. Given that many of the above non-alcoholic options are reminiscent of their alcoholic counterparts (and in some cases, include trace amounts of alcohol), it’s also a smart idea to keep a few other booze-free options on deck that function like alcohol alternatives but taste and smell nothing like alcohol.

That’s where hemp- and adaptogen-based beverages, as well as ready-to-drink botanical-based teas and aperitifs come into play. These kinds of beverages are in a class of their own, formulated as ready-to-drink cocktails and spirit-like drinks that don’t actually have any alcoholic counterparts. In particular, Heintz recommends the Ginger Spritz aperitif from Ghia and the adaptogenic Liviner spirit from Three Spirits.

3. Do encourage a sober loved one’s sobriety journey

Especially if your sober friend or family member is in recovery, it will be “critical for them to have someone in their corner that they can go to and feel comfortable and safe with around the holidays,” says addiction psychiatrist Smita Das, MD, PhD, senior medical director of psychiatry at workforce mental-health benefits platform Lyra Health.

That might look like working with them to develop a game plan in advance of a holiday party for what they can do if they find themselves in a position that makes it challenging for them not to consume alcohol, Dr. Das says. By helping ensure they have a clear “out,” you’re letting them know that you stand by and are in support of their sobriety journey. “It might also be helpful to have a signal that you can provide to each other in real time that means, ‘This isn’t working,’ so you’re on the same page about keeping them in the safest possible environment,” she says.

4. Don’t default to offering an alcoholic drink

Even if you know that you’ll be in a space with sober people this holiday season, it can be tempting to offer up an alcoholic drink as the default. “But saying ‘no’ might be hard for a person who’s not drinking, and some people, depending on the nature of their sober journey, may just agree to drink out of politeness,” says Bodkins. In that case, you’re inadvertently putting a sober loved one into an awkward position where they feel like they’re only drinking to appease you. So, even if it’s with all the best intentions, avoid extending an alcoholic drink to any friend on contact.

Instead, Heintz suggests simply relaying the options available, as in, “We have traditional Champagne and an alcohol-removed version—which would you like?” or “We have cocktails that we can make with or without alcohol. What can I get you?” This way, “you’re giving the other person the power to choose” versus requiring them to accept or reject an offer, she says.

5. Don’t ask why someone is not drinking

There are so many reasons why someone might choose to abstain from booze, and none of them are inherently the business of anyone else—holiday hosts included. “Alcohol is the one dietary choice people always seem to inquire about, yet not eating meat or gluten, for example, isn’t questioned,” says Dr. Das, “and that’s something we need to change in society. We need to learn to be more inclusive of those that choose not to consume alcohol, without needing their reason.” Especially because “no reason” is also a valid reason not to drink.

Asking “why” of a sober person just opens you up to an awkward scenario where they may feel the need to divulge their negative history with alcohol, a particular health condition, or even a pregnancy—all of which may be things they’d rather not share, especially in the context of a holiday celebration.

6. Don’t try to persuade a sober person with comments like, “It’s just one drink”

Someone else’s choice not to use alcohol “can make you question your own choice to use it, which can be uncomfortable,” says Maeve O’Neill, MEd, LPC-S, executive vice president of addiction and recovery at All Sober, an addiction support platform. That discomfort may then “cause you to make jokes or be unsupportive or even dismissive of their choice not to use alcohol, perhaps by encouraging them to ‘just have one drink,’” she says.

This type of language can also spring from the common assumption among people who drink that people who don’t drink are “upset with them for drinking,” says Dr. Das. “But it’s far more likely that the person who feels like they’re being judged is actually reacting to their own internal dialogue about how they feel about their drinking, rather than anything that the sober person did or said.” In that realm, it’s important to remember that someone’s choice not to drink, even if it’s at your holiday party, is not a reflection of you, how they think about you, or your own drinking preferences; it’s about them. So, it doesn’t make much sense to try to convince them otherwise.

Not to mention, suggesting that someone who isn’t drinking “just have one drink” is a particularly bad idea if they’re in recovery. “For this person, having a drink isn’t the same thing as having a serving of dessert for someone who is on a diet,” says Dr. Das. “When it comes to someone in recovery who may be counting their days or worried about that first step on a slippery slope, you don’t want them to trip on the ice with that ‘just one drink’ and fall.”

7. Don’t make assumptions about how sober people will act

Reality check: It’s possible to have just as much fun and enjoy the holidays without alcohol, says O’Neill, “so, celebrating with people who don’t drink alcohol is not difficult or boring.” But people who drink tend to unfairly make this assumption: “There’s a common misconception that the success of a party depends on whether or not guests imbibe, and some hosts might feel that if their guests choose to opt for soft drinks, their dinner party will look like a bunch of uptight adults sitting in awkward silence and not knowing what to chat about,” says Bodkins.

But that’s simply not true—nor is it fair to your sober guests to assume they’ll bring nothing to the party table. “In reality, sober guests are much more likely to relax and appreciate the night [and yes, be fun] if they don’t feel pressured into drinking,” says Bodkins.

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...