Ihave a plan for Christmas Day that, for the most part, involves solitude. I’ll wake up at my ordinary hour, work for a bit, then perhaps go see a movie before arriving at a friend’s for the same low-key “orphan’s Christmas” dinner I’ve gone to for the past few years. Then I’ll come home and work again. If the day goes anything like last year’s, my parents will text from Arizona, where they install themselves every winter, before I even remember that it’s a holiday.
But that’s it. That’s my Christmas for the past three years. And if I am being honest, I have enjoyed it.
I don’t usually talk about it, though. Saying that you spend Christmas alone is, to most middle-class Americans, akin to confessing a terminal illness. Brows raise, eyes widen with concern. “Will you be all right?” such people ask me with great sincerity, as though I have announced plans to travel to a war-torn region or to give all my possessions to charity. The danger they see is, of course, to my emotional wellbeing. A person at Christmas alone seems likely to plunge into depression.
Their worry is not hard to understand. The rhetoric of our culture has insisted, for almost a century now, that Christmas is some kind of ultimate pronouncement on the strength of a family.
Some years ago, I idly searched for “spending Christmas alone” in a database of historical newspapers. One of the first stories that came up was from 1939. A 77-year-old “nationally known Washington watchmaker”, the story reported, had shot his wife and then killed himself that December. The couple’s fatal quarrel, the police said, was over holiday plans. The watchmaker was upset that his wife planned to spend Christmas with his daughter in Florida, leaving him alone. I guess that was that.
Another theme of “Christmas alone” stories was the particular plight of lonely women over the holiday. These stories, of course, only start to crop up at the beginning of the 20th century. They are the obvious by-product of the surge of young “New Women” who began flocking to cities around that time, becoming artists and bohemians and clerks. You find innumerable mentions of charity dinners for women “with no family left”, and rarely any equivalent for young men. A 1900 Ladies’ Home Journal editorial gets particularly maudlin about the subject:
It is a heartbreaking feeling to open our eyes to the Christmas sun, to look at that orb of light and realize that it shines on happy families the world over: on mothers and sons, on husbands and wives, on brothers and sisters everywhere. But upon us it shines alone.
Is it strange that I have never felt that way about it? I am not unlike those turn-of-the-century women in that I moved to a big city to make my way there without having any family nearby. Arguably, I even went whole hog when I moved to a city in a different country. It can be lonely, sure, and I have struggled with that. But Christmas, as an occasion, has not really made my urban loneliness worse. On the contrary, in New York at least, Christmas turns out to be a time where we un-family-obsessed, un-Christian misfits emerge from the woodwork. We secretly thrill as the city starts to empty out, enjoying the shorter lines at neighbourhood places, avoiding the tourist crowds at Rockefeller Center.
I could be imagining it, but I believe myself to have exchanged sly, understanding nods with other people I see attending movies alone on Christmas Day. “We did it again,” our knowing glances said to each other.
I might feel differently, of course, had the loss of Christmas seemed abrupt to me, or even had I never known its pleasures. My parents and I – I’m an only child – are not particularly religious, but I was christened and raised in that vague and characteristically Canadian form of Protestantism known as the United Church. So we did Christmas, for many years, in the usual heightened but not particularly spiritual style of most North American families. When I was young, we attended the kind of extended family Christmases that, had I not been there myself, I would have presumed to be the exclusive creatures of Hollywood films: spare rooms bursting with cousins, a children’s table as well as one for adults, every light in the house blazing. (I also remember a bit of fighting, which tempers the idyll.)
When I got older we started doing Christmas just the three of us. Even then it was inevitably a production, because my father likes Christmas and insisted on standing on ceremony. We always had a tree – a fake one, nonetheless large – and a box full of ornaments kept since I was a baby. We had our rituals of food and drink. Our signature Christmas square is a cookie-butter type, studded with marshmallows. After I convinced them in my teenage years that I hated turkey dinners, we would eat fondue on Christmas night. We had a round-robin procedure all set up for the opening of presents.
We carried on this way well into my 30s and well into the time that my parents became snowbirds and were no longer in a proper house at Christmas, just an RV in an Arizona trailer park that didn’t have a spare bedroom.
Then I switched careers, from the predictable limits of a lawyer’s salary to the erratic income of a writer. Suddenly, the $300 premium on a Christmastime flight was a real obstacle for me. And I felt ashamed relying on my parents for the money. After a few years of deeply expensive travel that they mostly paid for, I suggested that I simply stay put and we visit at other, less costly times of year.
My frugal parents, for whom any expenditure over $20 is one worthy of significant intrafamilial discussion, nonetheless only uneasily agreed to this. I explained that I would have friends whom I could spend Christmas with, that I lived in a city full of people who didn’t even observe the holiday, and that I would be fine. They have accepted this for three years running but I sense, as with that text they send me every year, that it doesn’t please them.
And when I have finally tried to offer the most prosaic explanation to other people – meaning, I have said outright that it’s really a matter of money – they have usually not believed me. The lure of Christmas, even in our disconnected age, is still just that strong.