Is the most wonderful time of the year the most horrible time to be single?
I have always enjoyed being unattached around the holidays: There’s no argument about whose family I’ll be visiting. There’s no pressure to quantify my love for someone with the perfect gift. I get to celebrate with whomever, however I please. I have a tradition of hosting a party on Christmas Eve, and it’s one of my favorite events of the year.
But I recognize that, for some singles, December can be hard. Jewelry ads and Facebook posts imply that everyone is getting engaged; relatives might pry into your love life and debate why you’re single when they should be slicing the Christmas ham and minding their own business. If you’re divorced, do you include your ex in your family celebrations? And by the way, who are you bringing to the company holiday party? Your cubicle mate really wants to know.
While talking to singles and experts about their holiday traditions, I was inspired to share some of their traditions and advice. So here is Solo-ish’s holiday survival guide, with this caveat: You will survive this season, with or without reading this. But should you need some advice, these tips might come in handy.
When December feels like “Groundhog Day”: You know that feeling that time is standing still for you, while it marches on for others? It can be especially acute for singles around the holidays. Sara Eckel, author of “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single,” is married now but spent plenty a holiday season heading to her parents’ house, dreading that Christmas would be the same as it had been since 1983. Because she was single and preferred not to be, “there was a feeling of making no progress in a year. It really brought me down, even though I knew intellectually that it wasn’t true.” So she started making lists — not of gifts she wanted but of things she had achieved in the year that was winding down, such as a short story she had sold or a big trip she had taken. These things might not come up at Christmas dinner, but she wanted to remind herself that she wasn’t standing still after all.
Not everything revolves around family: Similar to Eckel’s lists, Lisa Moore, a 54-year-old psychotherapist in Florida, has her own single-woman holiday traditions. Every year, Moore does something for herself and something for others. “I don’t have children, so I’m always looking for ways to spend money as if I had kids,” Moore says. That entails giving to every Salvation Army kettle she sees and giving to local toy drives. Every year, she buys herself at least one thing she has been eyeing for a while (this year it’s a Jord wooden watch). And on Christmas Eve, instead of going to church, she meditates. “That is my spiritual time,” Moore says. “I wanted it to be a holy time of year, not necessarily in a Christian way, but a holy, quiet, reflective time. Christmas Eve is my dedicated time every year that I plug into quiet and centered-ness.” On Christmas Day, she plugs into nature. “I love that everyone is inside with their families,” she says, noting that her parents have passed away and her siblings are scattered across the country. “I’ll go kayaking, bicycling or hiking. I’ll find somewhere outdoors, and it’s always super-quiet.”
The parties: My colleague Lavanya Ramanathan has accurately dubbed the office holiday party plus-one experience as more awkward than meeting the parents. So how do you decide whether you and your significant other are ready for that? When you invite someone to your holiday party, you’re beginning to integrate this person into your life, says Laurie Davis, founder of online dating consultancy eFlirt Expert. “You don’t need to be exclusive” to accompany someone to their office shindig, she advises, “but it should be someone you see the possibility of a future with.” Davis also stresses that the point of these parties is to strengthen co-worker relationships, not romantic ones. Which might mean going solo.
The prying relatives: What do you say when a family member inquires about when you’re going to settle down already? A humorous quip — “My dog ate my boyfriend.” Or: “My boyfriend ate my dog” — can be disarming. Or, if you go the earnest route, Davis suggests keeping it short to avoid sparking a family debate about your love life. “If you’re going on tons of dates and it’s going nowhere, it’s easy to feel really upset when this question comes up,” Davis says. “But it’s very unlikely that your grandma is asking this because she wants you to feel bad. [This question] usually comes from a place of care. You can respond with humor; you can respond with care back. You’re in control with how this conversation goes.”
The texts from your ex: Why do exes often like to poke their heads out and say hello this time of year? If you’re around your family, there might be thoughts of what your future family could be like, so “it’s natural to think about those who we’ve spent time with in the past,” Davis says. And just like those conversations with your nosy relatives, if you get a text from your ex, Davis notes that the recipient is in control of where that conversation goes. You can respond to “Happy holidays” with a simple “You, too!” But before you reach out to an ex, think about why you might feel compelled to get in touch. “What’s the aim?” Davis asks. “And is it going to make you feel worse if they don’t respond? Or if they don’t respond the way you’d hoped.” (With a “Happy holidays” and nothing else.) “If you’re going to reach out to an ex this time of year, you need to expect any outcome,” Davis adds.
If your ex is still in your life … Of course, if you’re divorced and you co-parent with a former spouse, holiday communication and coordination might be mandatory and extensive. “These relationships keep evolving,” says Wendy Paris, author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.” Every year, Paris and her ex-husband talk about whether it makes sense to spend Christmas together in New York with their son and her ex’s family, which they have done for several years even after splitting up. This year is the first time she won’t be spending Christmas with her ex-husband. “This year I was thinking it would be nice not to celebrate with my ex,” Paris says. “Maybe that will free me up to meet someone new.”
Creating new traditions: Solo-ish contributor Jaimie Seaton, who’s divorced and co-parents with her ex-husband, says the holidays are “really, really hard, especially for my children,” who are 13 and 16. “They have lots of memories of great family holidays where we were all together.” Now Seaton focuses on creating new traditions while still involving her ex-husband in the gift-giving. The two of them help the children buy gifts for each other, Seaton says, and often still wrap the kids’ gifts together, much like they used to while married. But here’s one more thing that has really changed: Seaton used to have strict rules about holiday decorations (tasteful white lights only, no tacky Christmas displays). “I was much more controlling about how we decorated inside. I wanted it to look a certain way,” Seaton says. But appearances can be deceiving. “I had the perfect-looking family and the perfect-looking house, and that didn’t matter,” Seaton notes. So when her son suggested they put up colored lights and a blowup Santa out front, Seaton said yes. “He decorates the inside of the house and goes totally overboard,” Seaton says. “If that means that you can’t even think straight because there’s so much Christmas stuff, that’s okay. It’s a new tradition. It’s totally different than it used to be, and it makes him happy.”