I’ve spent many a holiday by myself. And you know what? It can be absolutely thrilling.
By Stephanie Foo
Ms. Foo is a writer and radio producer working on a book on what it’s like to heal from complex PTSD. She has worked as a producer at This American Life and Snap Judgment, and her work has appeared in places like “Reply All,” “Radiolab,” “99% Invisible” and Vox. She is also a 2019-2020 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow.
A few years ago, I lived across the street from a halfway house in the Lower East Side. Sometimes I’d meander over to bum cigarettes from the men who loitered outside, and we’d smoke and make small talk. One Christmas, I brought over a large cheesecake as a consolation gift: None of us were spending Christmas with our families, and none of us were thrilled about it.
“Christmas is a social construct!” I told them. “It’s just a day like any other day.”
They nodded, smiled lopsidedly. We tried to talk about anything else, but even as we hurled the holiday away, it kept boomeranging back into conversation. “They didn’t even give us turkey for dinner,” one man blurted out. “It was just meatballs. Swedish meatballs! For Christmas!”
Because of Covid-19, many people around the world are planning imperfect, turkey-less Christmases. According to one British survey, one in four adults in the United Kingdom worry that they may be spending the holidays alone this year. For many, this will be their first year celebrating without family. I don’t envy anyone’s first time — it can be excruciating.
But with the right mind-set and a little creativity, a lonely Christmas can be about more than survival. It can be an opportunity to learn to thrive in your aloneness. Of course, this is a challenge many encountered this year — learning to nurture and entertain ourselves, to break the boredom and monotony. But Christmas is an extravagant holiday, full of dramatic acts of celebration — so why not take the chance to lavish them on ourselves?
Few can better understand the challenge of self-love better than the orphaned and disowned. I belong to that club. My mother and father both abandoned me in my teens. As an only child, with no family in the United States, I endured the first of many solo Christmases my senior year of high school.
When you are forced to spend a holiday by yourself, the first inclination is often to ignore the holiday entirely. For years, I employed this strategy. I didn’t leave my home, because I didn’t want to see lights and decorations. Instead, I worked through the holidays and maybe watched some DVDs (no festive commercials to endure). But I always eventually learned: The more you try to push the festivities away, the more they’ll haunt you, like mischievous specters, until eventually you find yourself at 2 a.m. listening to Death Cab’s “Someday You Will be Loved.”
My first successful holiday was an Easter. I went with the Sunday paper to a sushi buffet, and sat reading and munching on unagi for the entire afternoon. It felt ridiculous and self-indulgent, and that grandiosity was just big enough to shake off my grief over lost childhood traditions. Maybe, I thought, if I embraced the holidays but twisted them into something inventive and entirely my own, I could enjoy them on my own terms.
One Christmas Eve, I went to a fancy restaurant in my neighborhood that I couldn’t really afford but had always wanted to try. I ordered osso buco and ate it slowly, relishing it. The owner dropped by my table and asked why I was eating alone. I told him I didn’t have anyone to celebrate with, so he poured me a glass of wine and sat down. He said he didn’t have anyone to celebrate with, either. He’d been persecuted as an Alevi Kurd living in Turkey, so he fled to the United States, where he learned to cook Italian food and eventually opened his own restaurant. We swapped stories and more wine, laughing and getting tipsy until he had to close down. That night I learned that the warmth of the holiday spirit is a fertile breeding ground for kindness, but the rawness of a crappy Christmas can be, too.
The next day, I went on my rooftop, put on my favorite music and ate some magic mushrooms. As I bopped to rainbow prisms careening across the sky, I recognized that my ability to survive these solo Christmases was a significant testament to my inner strength. That didn’t feel pathetic — it felt empowering.
I clung to that sense of power and freedom. One Christmas, I drove down Highway 1 from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay and took a long walk on the shore. One New Year’s Eve, I put on an enormous fur coat (thrifted!) and slinked around a fancy part of town, pretending to be rich so I could eavesdrop on powerful people’s conversations.
My favorite New Year’s of all time was spent wearing pajamas at Lake Merritt in Oakland. The area was totally abandoned, because everyone else was celebrating together indoors. So I stood on a pier at the edge of the water, blasted Beyoncé and had a one-woman dance party, flailing around and singing at the top of my lungs. Even though I was in the middle of the city, nobody saw. Nobody heard. It was perfect. No matter what happened, I told myself, no matter who decided they did or didn’t want me, I would always have this.
For me, the secret to spending the holidays alone was to recognize that I wasn’t really alone. I had myself. Which might not seem like much, if you’re going to be the guest who complains about the food and works the whole time. But if you invite the bravest, kindest, most fun version of yourself to your party, you might wind up falling in love with your weird and wonderful self.
I didn’t have to wait for “someday.” I had today.
But if despite your best efforts, the holidays prove hard this year, bereft and awkward, then at least take comfort in this: When you are able to spend the holidays with family, you won’t care about the gifts or the dry turkey — only that you’re surrounded by loved ones. The hardest-won happiness tastes sweetest.
Stephanie Foo is a writer and audio producer. She is currently writing “The Unmaking,” a book that explores the science and psychology behind complex PTSD.
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