Finding meaning beyond the Christmas bows, bells and baby Jesus

December 23, 2011

One year, I tried to skip Christmas. I was 30 and single. I lived alone. My family of origin doesn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus, and I’d spent enough Christmas mornings with other people’s families, opening a token gift from Santa, to find no novelty there.

So I heeded the directives I’d read in a women’s magazine. That holiday, I’d be my own best friend. I’d go for a long run. I’d read a poem. I’d take a bath, roast a chicken and give myself the gift of me.

The effort was an utter failure. My run was grueling. The air I sucked into my lungs tasted like blood and metal. The bath was unsatisfying, as baths mostly are, for the water grew tepid and I was bored. I browsed through volumes of poetry but found myself immune to its music. Transcendence, fulfillment, peace — all these evaded me that day. Defeated, I ate my chicken and turned in early, comforted by the knowledge that when the sun rose, it would be Dec. 26 and I could go to work.

You don’t need to love Bridget Jones to understand that being alone at Christmas can be soul-sapping. Yet aloneness is increasingly a fact of life. Single people now represent more than a quarter of American households. And other social trends exacerbate widespread holiday alienation. (“It just doesn’t feel like Christmas” is a common post on Twitter.) Sixteen percent of Americans say they’re “unaffiliated” from any religious tradition; among those between 18 and 29, that amount is more than a third.

When they do commit, more Americans marry across religious lines, and fewer are content to call themselves “Christian” at all.

As the broader culture reaches its frenzied peak this weekend of bow-tying and cookie-making, millions of others are endeavoring to make Christmas meaningful beyond convention’s dictates. If you’re Hindu or Muslim, a nontraditionalist or raised in a family too dispersed to gather around a single hearth, how do you best use the gift of Christmas? Whatever else it may be, Christmas is a free day, a caesura in the busy year with nothing on the schedule to do. I asked my friends, an unconventional lot, to describe their most resonant non-Christmases. Beyond surfing and video marathons, here is what they said:

“I woke up in Marrakesh and heard the call to prayer,” said a friend who loves to travel and spent a recent Christmas in Morocco. “When you travel to a non-Christian destination, the world doesn’t shut down or turn into some weird carnival, where everyone is suddenly supposed to be happy. Things just seem like a new kind of normal.”

On Facebook, another friend echoed this sentiment. One Christmas, while working in Singapore, he ate turkey curry with Hindu friends. “It made me feel both a part of something and a little alienated, or isolated in the crowd,” he wrote. “Which come to think of it is much the way the holidays often make people feel here.”

One friend, who is the youngest of four, had a different experience: “I grew to understand myself.” When he was 13, his exhausted mother banished Christmas. For the next decade, she took the family on an annual vacation instead. No presents. No tree. My friend felt cheated. “I spent hours every day walking miles on the beach alone,” he wrote to me. “The experience taught me, at that age anyway, that I wasn’t interested or necessarily happy being a captive with my family . . . and that I felt alone while together with them.”

Many years later, a palm-reader in an Irish pub described my friend to himself this way: “You know the pain is huge and wonderful.” Wonder in combination with isolation — “I’m not sure that’s what you’re supposed to feel at Christmas,” my friend writes, “but I bet it’s pretty common.”

My brother did what many non-Christians do: He went to work. He is a critical-care doctor, and as a resident, he often worked overnight in the ICU on Christmas. If you’re working on Christmas, he said, you’re probably Jewish, Indian or Asian, and the doctors, already bonded in exhaustion, find special camaraderie in their mutual outsider-hood.

On Facebook, a friend remembered being snowed in for more than 24 hours at her job in an assisted living facility and the special joy she felt reuniting with her children late in the day on Christmas.

My friends succeeded where I failed. They did not try to crush their seasonal discomfort: They acknowledged it. Then, having done so, they did not allow their alienation to overwhelm them. They found something interesting or important to do, which is all anyone can hope for on a holiday.

Happy Christmas, everybody!

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