TOM UTLEY: Alcohol-free beer. Warring dogs. A chickenpox outbreak. The Utley Christmas is already heading for disaster… as usual!

This week, for the first time in all my 69 years, I bought a dozen cans of alcohol-free lager for our Christmas celebration.

They’re not for me, I hasten to say — and I assure you that copious quantities of something stronger will be on offer to those of our guests who prefer, like me, to view the festive season through a boozy, woozy haze.

As for those who will tell me that zero-alcohol wines and beers have come a long way over recent years, and that you can hardly tell the difference any more, well, each to his own taste. I find they simply don’t hit the spot.

No, the lager in question is for those younger adult members of my family who, for one reason or another — and most uncharacteristically of Utleys — have forsaken alcohol this Christmas.

By contrast, roughly three quarters of my generation of over-55s expect to be celebrating with alcohol — although even this figure is sharply down on 12 months ago

What I find astonishing is that, in resolving to abstain, they are very far from unusual among their generation.

Such, anyway, is the remarkable conclusion of a survey this week by the online supermarket Ocado, which found that more than half of 18 to 34-year-olds — 56 per cent — plan not to touch a drop of intoxicating liquor during the festivities.

This is a dramatically higher proportion than last year, when 46 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds, and only 37 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds, opted for a dry Christmas.

Tensions

By contrast, roughly three quarters of my generation of over-55s expect to be celebrating with alcohol — although even this figure is sharply down on 12 months ago.

Of course, Millennials and members of Generation Z may have all sorts of reasons for avoiding the demon drink.

Some will be observant Muslims. Others, like one of my daughters-in-law, will be abstaining because they’re pregnant. Indeed, today’s expectant mums are much more wary of harming their babies than earlier generations were, in the bad old days.

The recent surge in prices may also have something to do with it — as anyone who has bought a round in the pub lately will be all too well aware.

But another, intriguing explanation is suggested by Amanda Thomson, founder and head of the alcohol-free winery, Thomson & Scott.

Such, anyway, is the remarkable conclusion of a survey this week by the online supermarket Ocado, which found that more than half of 18 to 34-year-olds — 56 per cent — plan not to touch a drop of intoxicating liquor during the festivities

She says that younger people have seen their parents and elders ‘embarrass themselves’ after imbibing too much festive cheer, and having grown up in the age of social media, they are anxious not to be caught pie-eyed on camera, making the same mistake.

All I can say — and I reckon I speak for more than a few of my generation — is that I simply couldn’t face the ordeal of hosting a big family Christmas without a stiff drink or six to relieve the stress.

I’m not thinking only of over-excited children and grandchildren, running around the house, bawling their eyes out because their new laser gun is missing its batteries, or Mrs U flapping because she’s forgotten the stuffing.

Nor do I mean just the usual tensions that can arise when grown-up siblings and in-laws are confined together in small spaces. (OK, I admit it, alcohol must take much of the blame for reviving disputes from the distant past about, say, who borrowed whose favourite saucepan in 1983 and failed to return it.)

No, I don’t know about your family, but something almost always seems to go spectacularly wrong at Christmastime in mine.

The recent surge in prices may also have something to do with it — as anyone who has bought a round in the pub lately will be all too well aware

There was the unforgettable occasion, back in the 1970s, when my mother produced a magnificent, flaming Christmas pudding on a huge, heavy dish, carrying it into the dining room to universal acclaim.

The dish promptly snapped in two, falling on the table, which then buckled in the middle, knocking over all our brimming wine glasses — while the flaming pudding set fire to the tablecloth.

If only smartphones had been available at the time, we’d have been assured of £250 from You’ve Been Framed.

Sozzled

Much more recently, there was the Christmas morning when our second son switched on the left-hand side of our double oven to warm up the chocolate-flavoured croissants we’d bought for his children as a breakfast treat.

As they tucked in, he absent-mindedly switched off the right-hand oven — in which sat the turkey, roasting for our lunch. It was several hours before anyone noticed that the bird was sitting in a cold oven.

This delayed our meal until tea-time, throwing out all the strict timings laid down in the gospel according to St Delia (Delia Smith’s Christmas, published in 1990 — highly recommended). By this time, most of the adults among the 18 of us were so sozzled that we could barely speak.

Which brings me to last year, when the pandemic kept away most of our invitees. Just five of us sat down to eat a vast turkey ordered weeks earlier, when we had been expecting as many as 20.

Throughout most of January, we were eating turkey sandwiches, turkey risotto and turkey curry. Goodness, it was a relief when we consigned the bones to the food waste bin.

This year, we’re expecting 15 to lunch on the big day — or 16, if you include our newborn grandson (though at two weeks old, he’s perhaps a little young for the festive feast) — and I’ve gone to huge lengths to ensure that everything will go smoothly.

Learning from the past, when we used to squash up to 25 members of our extended family into a kitchen that comfortably seats six, I’ve converted our knocked-through sitting room into a mini-banqueting hall. God knows why I didn’t think of it before.

I’ve even bought matching tablecloths, plates and mats for the whole lot of us — a first in my ever-growing family — calculating that since my money will be worth only a fraction of its present value before the new year is out, I may as well spend it all now.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, I’ll tell you.

On Monday, our eldest rang to ask permission to bring his new puppy, Stevie, a Labrador/Alsatian cross, and I couldn’t very well say no. This is the season of goodwill, after all.

Isolation

The trouble is that our Jack-Dack, Minnie — half Jack Russell, half dachshund — just can’t stand Stevie.

Normally the sweetest-natured of creatures, who loves almost all dogs and humans, she bares her teeth, growls and yaps whenever poor Stevie appears. How are we supposed to keep them apart, in a house overrun by over- excited children?

Then on Wednesday, our second son rang to inform me that his five-year-old has chickenpox, while his younger sister is likely to go down with it too. Yet both, he tells me, are absolutely determined to come on Sunday.

Now, I may not be much of a medical expert. But I do know that chickenpox can be extremely dangerous for unborn babies (though my pregnant daughter-in-law assures me that she’s had it, and is therefore immune). I know it’s not great for newborns either.

This means that if they all come, as I hope they will, we’ll not only have to keep two warring dogs apart. To be on the safe side, we’ll also have to keep our son’s little lepers in strict isolation from the baby and the expectant mum.

But I mustn’t go on about my Christmas woes. I’ll bet you have plenty of your own to think about — and none more so than those who face a lonely day, without friends and relations, whether tipsy or sober, to console them.

Despite all the disasters of previous years — and those almost certainly in store for me this year — the crazy thing is that I still look forward immensely to the most joyful celebration in the Christian calendar.

I wish all my long-suffering readers a very happy one. Meanwhile, I need a stiff drink.

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