This is usually the time of year when I write about “getting through” or “surviving” holiday visits with relatives, as my advice inbox fills up with the anxieties of people for whom the seasonal expectations of togetherness and good cheer are… complicated.
This advice hits differently in 2020, when the pandemic has taken so many people who should be in the world to celebrate, and when doing the right thing to protect ourselves and our communities can mean staying away from even the people we most want to see.
For anyone who can’t or is choosing not to make the annual pilgrimage to see relatives this year, I’d like to share some of the lessons about making a holiday your own, learned during the first Christmas I ever spent all by myself.
Let go of “should.”
It was 2009. I was in my last semester of graduate school, buried in thesis edits and grading my students’ final projects, fighting off a cold. I had neither the money to trek to Central Massachusetts, nor the energy reserves to double down on the annual O’Hare-Logan bronchitis strain and pass it on to my relatives like some cursed Magi.
My parents were upset that I wasn’t coming home for Christmas, and I was upset too! I was definitely going to miss everybody, and I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. But the more I scanned my finances, and the more tissues and cough drop wrappers piled up in my wastebasket, the more I knew that staying put truly was the best way to take care of myself that year, even if it made me and other people sad.
Every year, we are sold a vision of what the holidays are “supposed to” be like—days where love shows up in the form of cars with giant bows on top and velvet boxes tucked tantalizingly under trees, and in crossing great distances for maximum togetherness. This year, when so many of us can’t safely do any of that, it seems like a good time to recognize the ridiculousness of the fantasy: Much like those “part of a complete breakfast!” ads where the bowl of cereal is presented along with the nine other foods necessary to obtain actual nutrition, maybe these “FUCKING MAGICAL, OR ELSE!” serving suggestions for holidays were never all that binding.
Choosing not to travel for one or two holidays doesn’t mean you don’t love your family or that you will never return again—it just means choosing what is best for you at this moment. Take care of yourself by letting go of expectations and pressure to celebrate holidays a certain way.
Let go of the idea that a holiday must include other people.
People get very weird when they learn you are celebrating a big holiday alone.
"You can come celebrate with my family," said the lovely administrative assistant who I had never once hung out with outside of work. "We'd love to have you!" My then-boyfriend's parents said the same. One by one, pretty much every person I knew in or near Chicago invited me to take a train or series of buses to the suburbs and join them at their uncle or grandma's house. All together now: "But you can't be alone on Christmas!"
I declined all the invitations. If I couldn't make it home to disappoint my own weird relatives, I'd rather spend the holiday with zero weird relatives, but there was no good way to say that, so I created a cascading vague fiction of plans with friends (cats = technically friends!) to avoid giving offense to anyone, especially my then-boyfriend's mom, a majestic force in the kitchen who also happened to be somewhat aggressive about holiday hosting.
Other people having a strong feeling that this was Mandatory Togetherness Time doesn’t make it a rule, and I encourage you to remember that when setting boundaries around holiday invitations/commands from anyone who is pretending that viruses give a single fuck about the calendar. If 2020 has given us one thing, it's an ironclad excuse to Just Not. In a year when seeing your loved ones carries tremendous risk, no, you're not going to your neighbor’s brother’s friend’s house to deck poorly-ventilated halls and sing carols directly into each other's naked face-holes.
If you want to spend your holiday Zoom-toasting with coworkers, go ahead, but as you design your own celebrations, don’t agree to do things you don’t actually want to do to appease other people’s guilt about the possibility of you being alone for one day.
Let go of assumptions about what a holiday looks like.
The very first year a good friend of mine became a vegetarian, she hosted a Friendsgiving dinner at her place. She served pie and all the traditional sides and so much wine—and also a Tofurky because for her, “holiday meal” still meant imagining a roast thing in the middle of the table.
At the end of the meal, the Tofurky was nearly intact, except for the slices that remained on people's plates, with, at most, a polite bite or two missing.
The next year: Friendsgiving again, Tofurky again. This time nobody even took a slice. We devoured a feast of vegetarian side dishes, casseroles, and savory tarts. The Tofurky sat there, intact, glistening.
Year III: Same friend, I'm at the store with her to help shop and carry, and she puts a Tofurky in her cart. Her house, her rules, obviously, but why?
Friend: "Because it's Thanksgiving."
Me: "But nobody ate it."
Friend: "But it's Thanksgiving."
Me: "I mean, if you like it, that's a good reason to get it. Were the leftovers good?"
Friend: "Oh, I didn't eat them. I don't really like it."
…we pause, considering the array of Tofurky options…
Friend: "But people will expect some kind of roast thing?"
Me: "It's $17."
Friend: "Good point."
She put the Tofurky back. At the dinner, nobody even noticed the lack of Tofurky. We were too busy eating things we liked.
This year, I want you to consider skipping the Tofurky. Not literally—if you love actual Tofurky, you should definitely eat it! No judgment! I love tofu in many other preparations, the only cranberry sauce for me comes in a can, and I'm pretty sure every family has at least nostalgia-bearing, holiday-only food that started as a box of jello or a can of soup.
What I mean is, this year, skip whatever That Thing is for you—the food or ritual or supposedly “fun” activity that you don't really like, whether it’s blasting your least favorite carols 24-7 starting promptly on November 1, or wearing itchy matching sweaters “ironically.”
Being alone, or simply away from your family of origin, is also a great opportunity to redefine the tone of the holiday. My first solo Christmas was the first time that I ever experienced a major holiday where nobody argued with me or yelled at anybody else. For once, nobody commented rudely on the food on my plate, the direction of my career, the state of my love life, or did a coded racism about the “scary” city I lived in (without once ever asking me a question about those things). If your holiday visits usually require you to do a lot of, “Actually my pronouns are ____” or involve making a Bingo card to predict which relative hates science the most, this is your year to be free.
I can’t guarantee a safe or happy holiday season, but if we have to miss out on so many of the good parts of holidays this year, why not also quietly lose the stressful stuff that advice columns are made of?
When planning your holiday, replace “should” and “must” with “want to.”
Once you clear the decks of holiday obligations and pressure, you can start adding back the good stuff. I suggest the following criteria for any celebratory activity this year:
- It can be done safely, without exposing you, your family, your housemates, and the workers of the world to unnecessary Covid-19 risks.
- It is personally meaningful, pleasurable, and affordable/achievable for you.
- You actually want to do whatever it is. *
For me, being alone that Christmas meant noticing and newly appreciating all the decorating, cooking, and coordinating work that my parents and aunts and uncles put into making it a special occasion, like how my mom saved all the ornaments my siblings and I made in elementary school and still hung them on the tree, even the “E.T.” that looks like two dried cat turds stuck together with googly eyes on it. As you make your own holiday plans, it’s a good time to reach out to the elders in your family, thank them for the work they do to make holiday feasts happen every year, and ask them to share the recipes and details of your favorite foods or traditions with you.
By paying attention to what I missed and what I didn’t, I could keep only the things that made it feel like Christmas to me and ignore all the stuff that stressed me out. I got a tiny tree and decorated it, I wrapped cat treats and toys in newspaper and let her go apeshit in the crinkly scraps in the morning, I listened to seasonal music and watched old favorite movies and shows, and I stayed up late re-reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase on Christmas Eve the way I’d done since I was 12. Nobody would know if I ate only breakfast foods or that I slept until noon on Christmas morning instead of dragging my agnostic self to church. “Is that what you’re wearing?” Yup!
If you’re stuck for activity suggestions, Amy Rose Spiegel is on the case; I suggest clicking if only to marvel at the truly macabre variety show she and her cousins are usually forced to participate in.
Are you looking for ways to be together as a family even though you can't be in the same place? I bring you glad tidings of great joy: Jewish friends just celebrated their major holidays, and the lovely S. Bear Bergman has compiled a whole list of ways to make digital connection with family special and welcoming. If the religious aspects of the holidays and religious ceremonies are important to you, pray on! Religious leaders and communities are working to create video services, drive-through services, and other ways to feed your soul.
Feel whatever you feel, including the sad, weird stuff.
My first Christmas alone was a beautiful, frigid, lonely, weird day, and I cried more than once. I cried when I went outside in the blizzard and the cold needles of snow made my face feel like it would crack. Later, I rode the train down to the Loop and took the bus back so I could go the long way and look at pretty lights and peer into people’s windows, and I cried a little when the sweet bus driver refused to collect fares and let everyone ride for free, because men of a certain age being sweet out of nowhere gets me every time.
That night, I talked to my recently-widowed Grandpa on the phone and he sang me a song he’d written about what a hot babe Grandma was back when they first met (Grandpa was a leg-man, which I—and now all of you—can never unknow), and I cried afterward because I didn’t know how much time he had left or when I would see him again. I cried when my then-boyfriend surprised me by dropping off a “plate” of leftovers from his mom, by which I mean 6–8 overflowing Tupperware containers of homemade Polish and Italian food that fed me for a week. I cried yet again watching the “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” scene in Meet Me In St. Louis, both because that scene is a tear-jerker and because I was painfully aware of being a giant cliché.
One bout of temporary, chosen solitude isn’t at all the same as the enforced solitude of the pandemic, but this applies, I think: I felt guilty about being sad that Christmas, because after all, I’d chosen this instead of scraping my available credit and rallying for the trip. I also felt guilty about enjoying the peaceful, argument-free solo Christmas more than I thought I would. But often, I felt just as guilty and upset whenever I did travel—guilty for not enjoying everything more, guilty for not being able to afford nice presents, guilty for being so stressed out during a time that was supposed to be fun and abundant.
While I wish guilt and anxiety were not my personal default settings, I was and am allowed to feel all those things, and you are too. You’re allowed to feel happy, to celebrate what there is to celebrate, to find relief and joy and connection wherever and however you can… and you’re allowed to grieve and feel downright ungrateful at times.
Weird feelings, weird activities, weird year: My pitch and holiday wish for you, above all, is for a holiday season free of pressure, whether that’s pressure to celebrate a certain way, pressure to feel or perform certain feelings, pressure to pretend things are happy and normal, pressure to spend money you can’t afford, pressure to make/fake nice “across the political divide,” or pressure to put yourself and others at risk by relaxing social distancing protocols or attending ill-advised gatherings.
To get there, remove any and all “But it won’t be [holiday] without _______!” expectations from yourself and the people around you. Plan celebrations around what you can safely do, based on what you actually want to do, and then do those things as wholeheartedly as you can, with as much kindness to yourself as you would show anyone else.