First published by The Pool on 22 April 2017
My sister’s wedding – a Christmassy 10-or-so hours of merriment at the end of 2015 – culminated on the dancefloor. The last ones standing (about 30 of us, half-cut and giddy) clumsily formed a ring around the newlyweds. To the chorus of Take That’s Never Forget, we all held hands and began to rush in and out, like six-year-olds doing the hokey-cokey, our arms swinging wildly backwards and forwards. At one point, while we were on an outward trajectory, my dad turned to me and said, “Bloody hell – it’s amazing what alcohol can do.”
Let’s face it: for most Brits, booze is the petrol that keeps a wedding in motion.
It starts with champagne after the ceremony – an hour or two of milling about in nice hats, knocking back fizz without much food. Then, eventually, there’s the meal, with wine on the table, and possibly – if you’re like my friends – some kind of drinking game during the speeches. Then, just as you’d probably be ready to have a little nap, the tables are cleared and the music starts. And, really, the only way to power yourself through the final leg of the event (which will probably last for several hours, and you know it’s rude to peel off early) is to stay on the booze, whether you’re buying it from the bar or chucking it back for free.
I love weddings – and, to be honest, I generally love a piss-up. The majority of my friends seem to share that view. In fact, when I tell one of my best mates about this article, she cheerfully brings up the topic of “minesweeping” – the act of hoovering up half-glasses of booze abandoned by other people. She refers to it as “the classic wedding tradition”, though I think it’s rarely mentioned in Brides magazine.
The ideal scenario for me is to hit and maintain that sweet spot of tipsiness at which I’m just giggly and relaxed – and sometimes I manage it. But, if I’m honest, at several weddings I’ve peaked too soon, feeling great on the second glass of prosecco in the sunshine, but weary and uninterested by 6pm. Sometimes, weddings become the worst of both worlds: you’ve drunk enough to guarantee a hangover, but somehow a big meal has rendered you sober and sleepy.
“I don't particularly like daytime drinking, and weddings feel like a real booze marathon to me,” says Louisa, 41, who works in television. “I hate the fact that often loads of booze is served before there's even a sniff of a canapé, let alone a square meal, and by the time we all sit down to dinner I’m feeling pissed and slightly ill.” Feeling knackered at the point at which you want to dance is particularly frustrating. “At the last wedding I went to, I was almost jealous of the night-time guests who came in all fresh,” says Helen, a 37-year-old accountant. “I was like, ‘Ah, that would be nice – to just start drinking now.’”
When midnight rolls around, sometimes an element of relief accompanies the goodbyes. That is, unless it’s a late-night party. “In Ireland, weddings usually end at around 4am and then there’s often a ‘day two’ where the drink starts flowing again,” says journalist Muireann, 33. “You can’t just leave when you want to, and there’s often not even a place to take a break. Also, you’re expected to be this ultra-fun version of yourself, and sometimes it feels the only way to fuel that is to really hit the booze. I do think that for anyone with a propensity to drink too much it can be really difficult.”
No surprise then that weddings are often the backdrops for our most regrettable drunken mishaps. In researching this article, I’ve heard tales of red wine thrown over white wedding dresses, newly acquainted guests having sex in the bushes and someone going to A&E because of injuries sustained during over-zealous dancing. My friend’s brother took his shirt off at a wedding, tried to persuade the father of the bride to do the same and then performed “the caterpillar” on the dancefloor. Another friend attended one at which a guest “rugby-tackled the groom during the first dance", he recalls. Presumably, it seemed like a good idea at the time. “Me and the ushers had to bodily eject him, for fear the bride was going to actually kill him.”
Helen attended a wedding at which the newlyweds had a blazing row, complete with tears on both sides. It was caused by two factors: a lot of booze and the prominent, surgically enhanced cleavage of one of the guests. “She’d caught him looking at this woman’s boobs several times in the day, and she was absolutely hysterical, crying, ‘He’s a bastard,’” Helen says. “It went on for so long that they missed the entire evening.”
Lucy Rocca is the founder of the social network Soberistas, whose members all have concerns about their drinking and a desire to cut back. “When we first launched it four and a half years ago, it was coined ‘a Mumsnet for worried binge drinkers’ – which sums it up quite nicely,” she says; the site offers a place for women to talk and support one another anonymously. She’s not surprised by the tale of the fighting bride and groom: “I really think 80 per cent of domestic arguments are probably caused by booze. When you’re not drinking, you’re much more capable of handling any issues in a rational, grown-up way. When you’re drunk, you just blurt things out.”
It’s no wonder these things happen at weddings – events that drag our deepest emotions up to the surface, and throw a parade for them. If you’re not happy in your own life, attending one has a funny way of putting your vulnerability under the spotlight; to make matters worse, if there’s an ex-partner who broke your heart or a stepsister you don’t get on with, weddings are often where you bump into them. Even if there are no unwanted reunions, you often find yourself socialising with strangers with whom you have almost nothing in common. Alcohol can very effectively mute your anxiety, lower your inhibitions and generally oil the wheels of the day. One friend tells me that “the drinking is, in my view, the only thing that makes some weddings bearable". I know exactly what she means.
Unfortunately, it can also make an awkward situation worse. “One friend of a friend has a difficult relationship with her mother, who she will see for the first time in a year at her own wedding this summer,” says Muireann. “The mother is an alcoholic and she’s being thrown into this incredibly emotional day with free-flowing drinks, and expected not to crack. I think that’s a lot to ask. But what are you going to do? Not serve booze? Not invite your mother?”
Rocca gave up drinking six years ago and, initially, found it hard to be the sober guest. “I just found that I had no confidence. I felt really conspicuous for not drinking and I was bored, because I was so used to using alcohol as a prop to enjoy the night.” It took time and practice for her perspective to shift; rather than relating to weddings as an opportunity for a knees-up, she gradually began to focus on their deeper meaning: “It’s become more about seeing two people who really love each other get married, and the chance to catch up with family and friends that I’ve not seen for ages. Now, I really love weddings.”
Perhaps you’re the one who has a history of rugby-tackling grooms or crying on the shoulder of a bride, in which case you might be feeling apprehensive as this summer’s nuptials approach. If you want to change your pattern, it’s helpful to discuss it with others who’ve been in the same boat, advises Rocca, whether that’s turning to a friend or joining a network like Soberistas. “If you are the only person in your social group who’s wanting to cut back, it can be very isolating, and you can feel like a party-pooper. Knowing that there are other people who get it can really add to your resilience when it comes to staying sober.”
As for brides and grooms who are planning a wedding, making sure there’s a tasty non-alcoholic option is a thoughtful move. Rocca recently attended the wedding of a teetotal couple, at which mocktails and elderflower pressé were provided, and guests could get booze from the bar. “Even for drinkers, I think that worked really well. It just put the brakes on a little bit and there weren’t lots of people who were plastered by the early evening.”
It’s actually quite a bold move. In a culture where drinking is a mainstream social activity, it takes courage to be the couple who host a dry – or more moderate – wedding. “I think it could be seen as tight, or as admitting to having a problem,” says Muireann. “And people hate admitting they have a problem with booze, don’t they?” It’s a taboo that probably says more about those who drink than those who don’t.
What I didn’t mention earlier is that I was kicked hard in the shin at some point during that hokey-cokey – I was having such a great time that I didn’t mind at all. By the next morning, however, I was in two kinds of pain. There’s something to be said for an elderflower pressé that won’t brew a hangover, and a party that won’t leave you with a blossoming bruise.