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A Brief History of Chips/Keytags, Medallions, & Sobriety Birthdays – Principles or Personalities?

Sobriety Date:

Your sobriety date is the date on which you had your last drink or used drugs or placed a bet, or acted out in a compulsive-obsessive manner OR the date you sobered up or cleaned up from your last debauch.

Chip System:

The custom followed by some AA groups of handing out small medallions called 'chips' (some use keytags) to mark various anniversaries of AA, CA, NA member's sobriety dates. Many members, especially newcomers, carry a chip with them as a constant reminder of their commitment to stay sober or clean or free.


Small medallions commemorating various lengths of sobriety; i.e., 1, 2, 3, 6 and 9 months; years and multiples of years. The first chip which is usually given out to a newcomer is called a 'desire' chip. A desire chip signifies the recipient's desire to stay sober for the next 24 hours.

The traditions of chips, medallions and birthdays vary from group to group and 12 Step Fellowship to Fellowship.

A Brief History of Celebrating Sobriety

There is evidence that early on many people in AA carried personal momentos to remind themselves of the importance of their sobriety. Clarence H. Snyder - "The Home Brewmeister" had his last drink on February 11, 1938 and he carried a medallion (pictured right) made from a silver dollar and a watch fob up until just before his death on March 22, 1984. It has been dated back into the mid-1940's, if not before, and the holes represent 46 years of sobriety. Clarence started AA group number 3 in Cleveland in 1939, and in the beginning had a higher recovery rate (75%-93%) than Bill and Dr. Bob combined. His story, "Home Brewmeister", can be found on page 297 of the Big Book, Third Editiion.

Sister lgnatia, the nun who helped Dr. Bob get the hospitalization program started at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron was the first person to use medallions in Alcoholics Anonymous. She gave the drunks who were leaving St. Thomas after a five day dry out a Sacred Heart Medallion and instructed them that the acceptance of the medallion signified a commitment to God, to A.A. and to recovery and that if they were going to drink, they had a responsibility to return the medallion to her before drinking. The sacred heart medallions had been used prior to A.A. by the Father Matthew Temperance Movement of the 1840's and the Pioneers, an Irish Temperance Movement of the 1890's.

The practice of giving sobriety chips in A.A. is attributed to a Group in Elmira, N.Y. in 1947. The celebration of birthdays came from the Oxford Group where they celebrated the anniversary of their spiritual rebirth. People in early A.A. chose the anniversary of the date of their last drink.

Early celebrations of birthdays resulted in people getting drunk

Dr. Harry Tiebout was asked to look at the problem of sobriety birthdays leading to another drinking bout and he commented on this phenomenon in an articled titled "When the Big "I" Becomes Nobody", (AAGV, Sept. 65):

"Early on in A.A., I was consulted about a serious problem plaguing the local group. The practice of celebrating a year's sobriety with a birthday cake had resulted in a certain number of the members getting drunk within a short period after the celebration. It seemed apparent that some could not stand prosperity. I was asked to settle between birthday cakes or no birthday cakes. Characteristically, I begged off, not from shyness but from ignorance. Some three or four years later, A.A. furnished me the answer. The group no longer had such a problem because, as one member said, "We celebrate still, but a year's sobriety is now a dime a dozen. No one gets much of a kick out of that anymore."

The A.A. Grapevine carried many articles on chips and cakes and the following is a brief summary of an early one that appeared in Feb. 1948.

Why All the Congratulations? "When we start taking bows (even on anniversaries) we bow ourselves right into the cuspidor."

Early drunks played a lot of poker in the sober clubs. Plain, colored "chips" are still given out today by many groups around the country to signify a "desire" to stop drinking. Other colored chips represent different lengths of sobriety.

No, I don't believe that the "chip system" will keep anyone sober. Only a Higher Power can do that. But we are a nation that lives by symbols; what is the American flag but a piece of bunting, unless fully appreciated on what it stands for? Frankly, I hate poker. Yet, I wouldn't trade a mile-high stack of green stuff for my precious blue pocket piece. - R.G.W., Charlotte, North Carolina

What are your thoughts on sobriety birthdays? Are they a good thing or do they provide a false sense of security - a psuedo-defense against the first drink? Do medallions and sobriety birthdays put personalities before principles?

13 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    It is not how long an individual has been clean/sober, I know of many individuals with years of sobriety who have still not recovered i.e. dry drunk, untreated addict. They are essentially unhappy, but have managed to stay clean. This not something I aspire to. For me, time is not the issue. I focus on whether I am recovered now.

  2. Cameron F. says:

    I personally do not celebrate my sobriety birthday or clean date. It has been several years now. I would much rather work with a newcomer on that day than go to a meeting where the group showers me with a lot of frothy accolades and false security.

    I attended a medallion meeting recently and asked the man’s sponsor, "If he is a ‘real’ cocaine addict, that is, beyond human aid, then he didn’t get clean on his own power, he got it from a Higher Power, and that power doesn’t care about "chips" or medallions. However, if he did do it on his own power then he is not a ‘real’ addict and should he really be in this fellowship?" Of course that question stirred up a bit of controversy. I suppose a sobriety birthday celebration shows the newcomer that time can be accumulated if one works this program. I do believe time accumulated is important in the first few months. But once one has recovered, which can take a few weeks to a couple months, if you work this program honestly and thoroughly, time accumulated is not really important – spiritual progress is.

  3. Scott Finan says:

    Chips didn’t keep me sober… the Steps did.

    However, chips didn’t make me Relapse… my character defects,
    and my unmade amends, and my unwillingness to surrender self-will to God’s will did that.

    I neither support nor oppose the Chips. They are little round pieces of plastic at the end of the day.

    Now lets get back to the 12 Steps of Recovery from addiction.

  4. Deborah Jones says:

    Chips are a good idea, in the sense of reminding us of a desire to stay sober. Where I have a difficulty with them is that we tend to keep in mind the failures by going back to the first chip after any slip – Wouldn’t it be better to change the end date for reaching the chip the next chip to reflect the number of days the slip happened? For example: a person might be approaching their 60 day chip on May 1st and slip for two days close to that time – Would it be better to change the 60 day date to May 3rd and focus on the fact that for the first time in a long time the person had reached 58 days of sobriety without a slip?

  5. Ed H. says:

    Chips, medallions, call them what you will. We stay sober a day at a time, not from chip to chip. An old time told me that if we think we deserve a medallion to recognize our sobriety, maybe the people who never drank should get them too. We are rewarding ourselves for living normal.

  6. Brian S says:

    Useless and hypocritical. Live and let live. One day at a time. Spiritual progress. Chips are nothing but self promoting and serve no useful purpose but bondage of time and idolatry

  7. Carol M. says:

    I personally really like the chips/medallions representation. For me, it is a goal achieved in remaining clean and sober for a certain lenght of time. Ir is also a reminder to keep “working the program” so I continue to get positive results. This goes for whether I am receiving one or someone else is. It always gives me hope. I find it to be a celebration of A.A. and the successes we are able to achieve through the Program IF we are diligent in working it consistently.
    Bottom line is, it is your journey of sobriety. take one or don’t take one, whatever works for you as long as you don’t pick up that drink or drug!

  8. Stephen Kane says:

    We take the chip or cake so the newcomer can see that recovery is possible. We don’t take credit for God’s work.

  9. Paul E says:

    Clearly AA is the mother-ship program of all addictions. Can an addict who never drank but used AA 12 steps to stop, celebrate his birthday in AA? How about a gambler? What about a smoker? I attend open AA mtgs as a practice to work my outside issue that does not get the luxury of abstinence. I praise AA and do consider myself an AA member because I work the same steps and do not wish to start drinking alcohol or do drugs. But i get resentful because no one ever praised me for my abstinence in all my years “sober” or is it “dry”? I dont consider a crack addict sober if he stopped crack, but drinks every weekend; the same as i dont believe an alcoholic can say he is sober if he just beat his girlfriend. I have seen a guys get cake after such an event. Celebrating time of abstinence seems more of an ego trip when it comes down to it. None of the steps even suggest this as a practice. Why it is bad is because it creates a false sense of accomplishment, and creates a sense of expectations- which may or may not ever get met. As a result it violates the steps and traditions themselves, and probably is the cause of many shameful relapsers dying instead of returning to the program. As it is explained in the 12&12 about trad 12: anonymity expressed as humility is spiritual foundation of the program. Cakes & chips, are symbols of dogmatic religious social constructs of which AA is an alternative option; otherwise we are simply a cult using cult like tactics to brainwash members to “sanity”. Positive reinforcements can have negative consequences, AA has no such opinion on such outside matters. A person has the right to celebrate sobriety with their families and friends outside AA, but once they bring it inside then is simply “personalities over principles”.

  10. Dustin says:

    I understand everyone’s views and all on chips and tags and medallions but the fact of the matter is no one person is the same and some people have different ways that help them in their sobriety. I know a few people that have the longest clean time of anyone and they go to meetings but never worked the steps all the way through. I know people who collect their chips because it gives them a sense of pride towards them self for beating something so many people fail to beat and even die from. And on the other hand I know people who just quit and went about their everyday life. Just like anything you have to work your sobriety one day at a time however it works for you. The important thing is not what helps keep each different person sober but the fact that they are today and will work on staying that way tommarow.

  11. Dustin says:

    We as fellow addicts are supposed to help and support other addicts especially newcomers. Not bad talk the ways some people use to help themselves stay sober and feel accomplished. Some people may read those things and feel as though they should give up because they feel the way they have done is not acceptable by others and they have failed.

  12. Bill Miller says:

    I obviously don’t have as much energy as so many seem to have. It is all I can do to work my own program let alone working the programs of so many others. There is nothing in the Big Book about chips or cakes or celebrating sobriety dates. We are told to turn the will and the care of our lives oven. to “God as we understand Him.”
    This makes it a personal matter. To become aggravated, irritated or judgemental over someone else’so personal decision, which is a affects absolutely no one else, is a good indication your not working the steps. Sobriety chips can give one person a sense of pride or a reminder of accomplishment. It is entirely up to the individual. I could have several chips. But i only have 1 of which I am extremely proud and always carry. The 24 hour chip.

  13. Len says:

    My surrender coin is placed in the protective cover of my Big Book ad the 12 and 12 Book. My current coin in in my wallet so that every time I take out my wallet I see it. It does not remind me that I am an alcoholic but reminds me that I am a recovering alcoholic and in doing so gives me strength.

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