My pattern of spending the holidays alone started during college. I went to school in Boston, but my entire family was back in Seattle. It was too expensive to fly home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I’d usually stay on campus during Thanksgiving. The first year I accepted a friend’s invitation to go home with her to New Jersey. It was awkward. I tagged along to her high school friends’ houses, attended church with her family and sat at the table making small talk with people I’d never met before and wouldn’t meet again. Everyone was nice, but when a group of girls are laughing about that time at Homecoming when so-and-so’s dress ripped it’s hard not to feel like a third wheel.
The next year I was invited to share Thanksgiving with a group from the seminary up the street from my college. I sat down at the table next to the only single guy, who started our conversation by talking about how a pastor needs a wife to receive a calling to a church and wow, was I single? That was worse than awkward.
By my third Thanksgiving, I had had enough. When the girl who lived two doors down in the dorm asked what I was doing, I lied and said, “Oh, I have plans.” I don’t think I imagined the look of slight relief that crossed her face when she said, “Great!”
When you tell someone you don’t have any plans for the holidays, particularly within the context of the Christian college I attended, they often feel obligated to invite you along. But that Thanksgiving spent alone in the dorms was the best holiday I had during college. I went tramping through the woods behind campus, my boots crunching on the ice-tipped leaves. I made tea and curled up with good books on my bed, reading for fun for a change. I got hot cider in a coffee shop on Newbury Street and people-watched to my heart’s content.
Since then I’ve spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases by myself, enjoying the quiet and solitude of my own home. I don’t wish to appear ungrateful to the people who opened their homes to me in the past. Offering a place at your table to someone who might otherwise have nowhere to go is a kind thing to do, and I realize that it creates more work in terms of cooking and cleaning. But the emotional labor is exhausting: chatting with 15 people you’ve never met before, trying to remember names and faces, and worrying because you brought lotion as a hostess gift and then found out she’s allergic to fragrance. And getting caught in the middle of the fight about your friend changing her major, or the sometimes complicated family dynamics that abound in even healthy families, isn’t relaxing.
When I tell people that I sometimes prefer being alone at the holidays, they give me a strange look. They say that it’s a time for family and friends, and ask if I get lonely. But I don’t have much family left: My mother died when she was 58, and because she was an only child that side of my family is gone, and I’m estranged from my father. I do have a family by choice, but there have been years when they traveled to visit their birth families and just weren’t around. And there have also been years when I’ve politely declined and chosen to be alone.
With the rush and bustle of daily life, it’s a luxury to have an entire day or two all to myself. No deadlines, no one asking me to get them water after I just sat down on the couch, no social demands. My time is truly my own in a way that it rarely is the rest of the year. Because I know it will pick back up the moment the holiday ends, I bask in that freedom and that brief time of answering to no one. I’ve found that, if loneliness does start to nip at me, it’s always right before I have to rejoin the real world, and it doesn’t have time to deepen.
I’ll be alone on Thanksgiving again this year, holed up in a cabin on Washington state’s San Juan Islands. I’m looking forward to the break after a fall spent finishing grad school, working on a novel and helping my son, who will spend the week with his father, start kindergarten. I’m an introvert, and I rest and recharge best when there’s no one else around. While I’ll miss my son, I’m pretty sure that the only other thing I’ll miss will be the turkey.