Stephen Jardine: The country where all roads lead to alcohol

As Edinburgh's Christmas market shows, alcohol seems to invade almost every aspect of life in Scotland, writes Stephen Jardine.
Mulled wine is just one of a plethora of Christmas-themed alcoholic drinks (Picture: Getty)Mulled wine is just one of a plethora of Christmas-themed alcoholic drinks (Picture: Getty)
Mulled wine is just one of a plethora of Christmas-themed alcoholic drinks (Picture: Getty)

What would you like for Christmas this year? How about some mead beer or a sloe gin hot apple toddy or maybe just a mulled wine? Right now in the centre of Edinburgh, you’d be spoiled for choice.

Light Night last weekend marked the start of Edinburgh’s Christmas celebrations and for the next six weeks the city will be a winter wonderland for locals and visitors, young and old.

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A quick look at the website gives you an idea of what to expect. Alongside Santa there are images of kids, ice skating, theatre performances and funfairs. However that is not quite the full picture.

What is not mentioned is the starring role booze plays in this great Christmas production.

I’m no prohibitionist. In fact I’m the man who always insisted a large whisky was left out for Santa on Christmas Eve “because he likes that”. But at a time when we are about to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol, we need to take a long, hard look at the role booze plays in everyday life.

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Edinburgh’s Christmas is operated by Underbelly and they’ve come under fire over this issue in the past and have always denied the positioning of alcohol is too prominent. But you don’t have to be Ebeneezer Scrooge to understand something has changed.

There was a time when Edinburgh’s Christmas consisted of a tree at The Mound and not very much else. Then came the ice rink and some stalls in Princes Street Gardens. Now it is a monster event at multiple locations but the mood is also different.

What was a family-based celebration has morphed into a chance for adults to get together and drink on the streets. With that comes anti-social behaviour, hence the increased security presence which again alters the atmosphere.

With half a million visitors now drawn to Edinburgh for the Christmas celebrations, the city council knows the value of the product and charge a hefty price to the operators. The easiest way for the organisers to recoup that is through alcohol sales. You have to sell an awful lot of Santa hats to kids to generate the same revenue as a few rounds of Gluhwein at The Mound.

Alcohol has its place. Christmas without mulled wine, Baileys and a bottle of port would be unimaginable – as well as unbearable – but to give it the place and space we have in Edinburgh is to endorse consumption to a degree that is unhealthy and unwise.

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This time last year I was in Copenhagen and it was different. The Christmas street markets each had one stall selling Gluhwein but that was it and everything else was geared towards selling crafts or entertaining kids and the atmosphere reflected that.

No one wants to go back to the dark days when a string of fairy lights on Princes Street was seen as an affront to Presbyterian morals. But, at the same time, we need to look at the way alcohol seeps into every celebration, gathering and event because that lax attitude is killing us. In Scotland this year over 1,200 people won’t see Christmas because they died during the year from alcohol abuse. That figure has jumped 10 per cent in just 12 months and drink-fuelled hospital stays are also up two per cent.

We need to break the vice like grip alcohol has on this country and what better time to start than now. It may be a quick source of revenue but not everything has to be built around booze all the time. So let’s leave it where belongs it belongs in bars, clubs and restaurants and keep the streets and markets for the real spirit of Christmas.