Last night, I was re-watching "Friends" on Netflix with a friend. I saw a Christmas episode, one in which Rachel is upset that she’s single. “I hate being alone this time of year,” she says, joining a large sorority of characters from movies and holiday episodes who have dragged their own evergreen trees through New York City streets or made glum small talk at their parents’ party in an ugly Christmas sweater.
The difficulty of being single during the holidays is hardly limited to the fiction. I see it all over social media and hear it chatted about at holiday parties. I’ve said Rachel’s words myself, feeling in my bones that it’s harder to be single during the holidays than at any other time of year.
This year, though, I began to wonder if this was true. Being single can be a challenge at any time — logistically, at least, if not emotionally. But from my vantage point, it seems like the holiday blues can hit anyone, regardless of marital status. Having a partner doesn’t appear to be a protection from sadness or a recipe for a magical Christmas.
I thought back on my own holidays past. There were two Christmases that found me in romantic relationships. The first was with my college sweetheart — from my first real romance. I spent Christmas with my family and then flew to Chicago so that we could celebrate the week between Christmas and New Year’s together. When I call up the memory, it seems like it had been a stereotypically romantic celebration, until I remember the full details.
Yes, we went ice-skating and he took me to dinner somewhere he had always wanted to take someone special. But that visit made it crystal clear that I hadn’t been making up the tension I felt from his family. When he put his arm around me during the sing-along "Messiah," his mother glared. Beyond that, a pall hung over his father’s side of the family. His grandmother was in the hospital and things didn’t look good. In spite of it all, his grandfather insisted on meeting me in his home. I have never forgotten the graciousness of that visit, the way he hugged me and made me feel at ease in the very center of his own sorrow.
Years later, I was dating someone else who lived in my city when December came. I knew the relationship wasn’t working, but I hated the idea of breaking up right before the holidays. I’d already purchased his present. We had ironed out the details of our family celebrations, planning to spend Christmas Eve with his relatives and Christmas Day with mine. I was even part of the family gift exchange. On Christmas Eve, I floated in a hot tub with his parents, sisters and their husbands, sipping a glass of wine, as he read the paper inside. He said that he’d forgotten his swimsuit. I broke up with him just after the New Year and wished I’d done it sooner.
A partner hadn’t protected me from feeling lonely and sad over the holidays, whether I was whipped by the Chicago wind or steeping in a hot tub. Holidays were still complicated. By that same logic, I decided, maybe I don't have to give in to a holiday funk just because I'm single. Maybe I could enjoy these days for what they are, rather than what I thought they could or should be.
This fall I stopped devoting energy on dating. On and off, for the past two years, I’ve been dating online, hoping to meet someone wonderful. While I find my life very fulfilling, I’d eventually like to be part of a couple. The internet has seemed as good a place as any to search for that connection. But a few months ago I realized that it had been a long time since I’d been on a date that I enjoyed, since I’d met anyone I was truly excited about. I was taking the time to have the same conversations over and over, experiencing all the angst of relationships with none of the rewards. I needed a break. I deleted my online dating accounts and immediately felt a weight lift. This was no longer something on my to-do list, something I might fail at or fumble through. I let go of the need to make my dating life happen, as if that had ever worked anyway.
Suddenly, I had more time and I was seeing my present life differently. With a Christmas relationship off the table, I began to think about how I wanted to celebrate the season.
I started with a Christmas tree.
Although I’ve always loved the idea, I had never let myself consider getting a Christmas tree, even a small one. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I thought it was worth it to get one just for me, even if I might enjoy the decorations and the lights.
This year I stopped at my favorite vintage store and bought a small artificial tree right out of the window. I made myself a cup of cocoa, spun a Christmas record and unwrapped the ornaments from my childhood that I’d packed away in a box and carefully transported from my parents’ house. Now tiny mouse Clara, from my first time seeing “The Nutcracker,” hung on my tree, along with a teddy bear who since the 1980s has played “Jingle Bells” when you squeeze him. Beside the treasures I made with my much-younger hands, I hung a miniature Hogwarts Express from the trip my brother and I took a couple of years ago, and a brand new fuzzy llama I had purchased this year — just because.
My favorite local resale shop hosted an evening shopping party with snacks and wine and I went in search of sparkle. When I tried on a delicate gold dress that made me feel like an effervescent champagne cocktail, I didn’t sigh wishing I had someone to take me (and it) out on the town. I bought it, and when the holiday party circuit came around I took myself out.
Paying attention to my actual life has helped me to be kinder to myself, but it’s also invited me to notice what’s already there — the beautiful and the painful. I’ve soaked up the moments watching a silly Christmas movie with my mom and stumbled into a 12-hour cheese sale at my favorite grocery store. I’ve made new friends at these holiday parties, and reconnected with old ones.
This season a friend has been working through serious health challenges of her husband and I’m thinking of her as I light a peppermint-scented candle, a visual reminder to reach out and to offer whatever I can. Another friend is recovering from surgery that removed a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball, and her husband remains shaken from their close brush with death. I think about them as I take in the glowing lights on my drive home, joining my thankfulness with theirs that he won't spend this Christmas bereaved.
I’m finding that my eyes are drawn to those standing alone. I’m giving in to the impulse to send texts and make calls when people come to mind unexpectedly. I’m listening when my friends need to vent about family drama or money. I’m seeing this messy, hard, occasionally wonderful holiday for what it actually is.
This year I will not be one of those characters from a Christmas movie, the ones who work too much or still aren’t over their exes. I won’t kiss someone under the mistletoe as the scene slowly fades to black, now that I’ve discovered the “true meaning of Christmas.” Instead, I’ll celebrate with my real family and friends, in the middle of my real life, experiencing the good, hard and the awkward, opening these days like a present others have given me and that I’ve given myself.