The joy of going solo

Spending the winter holidays alone? You’re not the only one.

4 minute read
A selfie of Melissa, a white woman in her early 40s, by a pond. She wears a puffy coat, glasses, and a blue hat.
Writer Melissa Strong enjoyed a solo trip on her 2021 winter holiday. (Photo by Melissa Strong.)

Many people face holidays alone, from broke students to people whose workplaces remain open. Health issues may force us to skip holiday gatherings (especially in a pandemic). Maybe we opt out of stressful travel or unhealthy family dynamics. Possibly we lack family, whether genetic or chosen. Or perhaps we outlived our contemporaries and loved ones. These experiences are common, yet cultural messaging often insists solo holidays are unusual and shameful; a problem to be solved.

This is especially true at Christmas, a major religious and social holiday deeply intertwined with business and capitalism. Plenty of Americans do not observe Christmas, though you wouldn’t know it from walking into a retail store or even stepping outside your front door. Holiday lights, decorations, sales, marketing displays, and public events contribute to expectations about how we should celebrate, and with whom.

I have decades of experience celebrating holidays in largely non-traditional ways, from Thanksgiving pizza to Christmas hikes, but divorce introduced the new challenge of solitude. I tagged along with various people that first year. After getting my bearings I realized that didn’t feel right, but neither did adopting a Scrooge-like attitude.

If you’re new to spending Christmas alone, the Internet offers plenty of suggestions, such as reading, volunteering, or preparing a festive meal for one. But these options tend to use distraction as a coping mechanism. Choosing acceptance instead opens doors to contentment and opportunity for growth. Tuning out external noise and tuning into myself helped me create a holiday that offers the quiet, rest, and peace that nourish me at this time of year. Your wants and needs may differ, but once you know what they are, you can make plans that prioritize them and work with your resources and budget. Positive reappraisal, proactive planning, and maintaining meaningful traditions make acceptance possible.

Positivity and planning

Positive reappraisal involves reassessing your circumstances to find the value, and studies show that it improves well-being. For instance, self-critical thoughts about spending a holiday alone can be reframed as, “I get to relax and do what I want instead of what others think I should do.” Not all of life’s lemons become easy lemonade, and it can help to find the lessons learned or skills gained from adversity, such as the resilience that promotes healing after a loss or setback. Positive reappraisal gets easier with practice, and it works even when the silver linings still look like clouds. I have found that when I put a positive spin on negative situations I describe to others, I start believing what I say. Just like projecting confidence, positive reappraisal allows you to fake it till you make it.

Another strategy key to enjoying holidays alone is proactive planning. Although avoidance is human nature, don’t do it now. The longer you delay planning a pleasant day for yourself, the more you leave to chance at a hectic and expensive time of year. Sure, you might receive a welcome invitation to celebrate with awesome people. Or you might not. Then what? I make plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas in late summer. I can always change the plan, but I could be out of luck later without one. Determining what to plan requires self-awareness, which most of us could use more practice with.

The power of tradition

Especially at this time of year, tradition informs and perpetuates our cultural expectations, which explains why the most popular holiday songs are decades old despite tons of new releases each year. Traditions can be wonderful ways to connect with our families, ancestors, heritage, faith, and community. But they are not one-size-fits-all, and they can isolate those who don’t participate. Especially at the holidays, when traditions reign, it can be tough to check in with yourself and figure out what feels best for you.

A photo of the ocean taken from the beach, the bright sun low over the shining water. The sand is covered with footprints.
A walk on the beach is a great way to spend Christmas day. (Photo by Melissa Strong.)

Personal traditions can lend extra meaning to solo celebrations. I’m building my own tradition of taking a solo trip. One of my favorite alternative holidays over the years was a relaxing trip a short drive away to a place without Internet and cell service, and now it is a gift I give to myself. Some people don’t understand this, but for others, wistful envy is the most common reaction to my holiday travel plans.

Before leaving town, I light a menorah, listen to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, buy my favorite Italian pastry from a South Philly bakery, and see a performance of the Philadelphia Ballet’s Nutcracker. On Christmas day, I open the gifts I received before going for a hike or a walk on the beach. I sleep late, go to bed early, and come home refreshed. I relish not engaging with the chaos, drama, awkward small talk, nosy questions, forced gaiety, or endless cooking and cleaning that the holidays can bring.

Whether your holiday for one is a choice or a circumstance, you are in good company. Your situation is not sad, pathetic, or an ordeal to be endured. It can be a source of enjoyment and growth as well as renewal, and others may be more admiring of your plans than you realize. A holiday on your own can be a happy one.

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