What Happens When You Spend Christmas Alone

by Melissa Kirsch
Originally Published: 
Laura Bittner/flickr

The holidays can be so terribly stressful, full as they are of uncomfortable obligations and awkward reunions with relatives you see once a year and faux-gratitude for that leatherette desk set and you don’t even like ham. But as much as you might dread the pageantry, as much as you cannot stomach the thought of seeing your bitchy cousin who always manages to reduce your life to a pathetic ruin with one casual comment, as much as the holidays are such a ghastly mixed bag of revelry and emotional devastation, I urge you to think long and hard about skipping them altogether. You might think you would be so much happier spending the holidays by yourself, but you are wrong.

I thought I was immune to the bone-deep depression that afflicts the person who decides to spend Christmas alone—I am, after all, Jewish, and I enjoy my own company so much I’ve been known to greet the news of people canceling plans with gratitude and relief on par with finding out the test results are negative.

But the holidays are so profoundly freighted with societally-agreed-upon messages of togetherness—carolers’ voices rising in unison, mistletoe kisses, dining rooms clown-car full of in-laws and newborns and neighbors—that spending the day alone constitutes a terrible violation of a sacred social contract. This contract insists we are meant to be with other people over the holidays, and we all become automatic co-signers of the contract just by existing during this gingerbread and frost-tinged season.

The Best Laid Plans


Given the demands of my siblings’ partners’ families, my own immediate family often celebrates Christmas a few weeks before the 25th. The year I spent Christmas alone, we’d had our holiday celebration at my parents’ house at the beginning of December. By the time actual Christmas rolled around, I was psyched at the idea of taking the holidays for myself. I refused local friends’ invitations to attend orphan dinners and movie dates and planned to treat the few days off from work as a luxury to be indulged in to the utmost. I was going to sleep late, I was going to read books and eat Mallomars for dinner and watch The West Wing for the third time. I was going to have a decadent staycation doing exactly what I was certain I wanted to do at all times and it was going to be glorious.

On Christmas morning, as families gathered bleary-eyed around the tree to open presents, kids in their footed PJs, parents in flannel robes with big mugs of coffee, I went out for a brisk jog. It was freezing cold and the park was empty. It was eerily quiet, not a creature stirring but a homeless man feeding bread to a brood of stray cats. I ran faster, telling myself how lucky I was to have this entire morning to myself when everyone else on earth was inside getting cabin fever.

The Loneliness Sets In

But I didn’t feel lucky—I felt like an outlaw. I felt nervous about what I was going to do with the rest of the day with the stores closed, the streets empty of neighbors. I knew the phone would not ring, I knew there would be no emails—work or otherwise—as everyone I knew was occupied with Christmas pursuits.

I went home and showered the slow, leisurely shower of a person who has nowhere to be, but as I toweled off, I felt the anxiety rising. I was faced with the dilemma of getting dressed even though I knew full well I would not be leaving the house, or putting my pajamas on at noon, an action that is so totally depressing that I split the difference and put on what I convinced myself were cozy clothes but were really just pajamas that didn’t have holes in the crotch. I put on the radio, but of course the only thing on was that marathon broadcast of Handel’s Messiah radio people assume is the only thing anyone would turn the radio on for on Christmas.

The sun sets on Christmas at approximately 2 p.m. By the time I’d eaten lunch—cottage cheese and water, the only things in the fridge—it was that gray winter twilight hour that is the temporal equivalent of despair. I tried to read, but it was eerily quiet. It felt cold in my apartment, like the building management had assumed everyone was out of town and turned off the heat. It felt like when you’d stay home from school sick as a kid, after The Price Is Right and the morning talk shows were over, and Eyewitness News would come on as you dozed on the couch, the dust-filled light streaming in. I was lonely, at home when people aren’t meant to be at home—this is what happens when you delude yourself into thinking that the most people-centric day of the year is a good day to spend alone.

It Was All a Terrible Idea

By 9 p.m. I had caved and called my friend Avi. “Get dressed,” he commanded. “We’re going out.”

Over Chinese food, I described my day—the loneliness so acute it felt dangerous, the insidious cold and quiet of a city depopulated of people, my best laid plans gone awry.

“You can’t opt out of the holidays,” Avi declared.

“But in theory, you should be able to spend a day alone without it feeling like you’re going to be alone forever,” I protested.

“In theory you should, but in practice…” he said.

In practice, opting out of the holidays is something you should not do if you can help it. This is not to say, of course, that no one on earth would be capable of having a delightful day of me-time on Christmas. The dream of reading and TV-watching and manicures and cookies is indeed possible, but for those of us who are accustomed to Christmas being a group event, a busy series of gift-giving and wassail-sipping and glad-tiding-bringing, trying to spend the day alone is really—no matter how much you think you despise the holiday—a truly terrible idea.

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