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December 20, 2005

Alone for Christmas

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Not long ago I posted about family-centric holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas being potential emotional battlegrounds regarding which relatives were or were not visited.

But what about the case where no one is visited -- where one spends the holiday alone.

I have spent a few holidays either removed from family or totally alone. When some people (entirely women, for what it's worth) hear me mention this, they wonder how I survived the experience. I'm not trying to be funny or ironic here: these women were genuinely concerned about me. And they might have been imagining the horror they themselves might feel if placed in such situations. One woman even became slightly annoyed that I had allowed it to happen at all -- surely, I could have been taken under somebody's wing.

No doubt there are a few people who make it a point to have a solitary Christmas, but I'm not one of them. My absences from family have been dictated by circumstances. Let me put them on the record.

I was in the Army for about three years and only made it home for Christmas once. (They shut down Basic Training for the holidays and gave us leave time. I can't remember who paid for the trip, but I rode the Greyhound bus from San Francisco to Seattle and return, plus a local bus between San Francisco and Fort Ord.) Because my family lived in Seattle and I was stationed on the East Coast or Korea, I "celebrated" Thanksgiving and Christmas in army barracks or service clubs. My mother would mail me Christmas presents, so I had that holiday touch at least.

My least-joyous holiday while in the Army was Thanksgiving, 1962. This was right after the Cuba Missile Crisis when the U.S. and the Soviet Union came about as close to a shooting war as they ever did during the Cold War. Thanks to some missile and hospital units being pulled out of Fort Meade (Maryland) and sent to Florida, post headquarters soldiers like me found themselves pulling guard duty. I was guarding an ammunition storage facility that day and had to have turkey dinner at another unit's mess hall. This meant that I knew no one and had to chow down alone.

(The rank I held the longest time in the Army was PFC -- private, first-class -- the insignia being a solitary chevron on the sleeve. On discharge, I was the equivalent of a three-stripe sergeant. Nowadays strangers sometimes take me for a retired colonel. Go figure.)

Later I spent three years as a graduate student at Dear Old Penn, a continent away from Seattle. This time, most family holidays were totally on my own, though I again got Christmas presents from home.

Let me describe my first Philadelphia Christmas. I was living in a studio apartment (one room plus bath) on the top floor of an old row house converted to apartments. (For Philly phanciers, it was 3923 Pine Street.) Christmas Eve fell on Saturday in 1966 and I took the trolley downtown and poked around Wanamakers and other stores. Snow started to fall, so I retreated to the apartment. I awoke Christmas morning to ... silence. It was Sunday. It was Christmas Day. And there was a foot of snow on the ground. I figured that I might as well try to find a Sunday New York Times to keep me amused. But with a foot of snow on the streets, I couldn't drive anywhere. So I put on boots and hiked over to Walnut Street, hoping to find someplace to buy the paper. Every store was closed, so I trudged on, winding up at 30th Street Station where there indeed was a Sunday Times. I caught the Market Street subway, rode to 40th, and completed my trudge to the apartment where I opened presents and read the paper.

Since those days, aside from my first Thanksgiving after moving to Albany, NY, I've been able to spend holidays with family or friends.

This year, I'll be in California with The Fiancée and some of her family for Christmas. Then we'll be off to Honolulu till New Years, so there's no reason to feel sorry for me. I won't be blogging, but am popping a post or two in the queue so as to get off to a fast start in 2006.



posted by Donald at December 20, 2005


I'm fortunate that I grew up with both parents employed in the news, so Christmas and Thanksgiving were always working days. Nothing to get sentimental about.
Once when I was living on the Philly Main Line I started to take the train home on Xmas Day and there was a fire in 30th St Station! So that was that. Another time I had the stomach flu and wound up in bed at the home of my Jews-for-Jesus friends.
I'm surprised to hear that women aren't more resilient about spending Xmas alone. They are probably the same women who believe you have to shave your legs and your underarms and that men should always pay for the check!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 21, 2005 12:33 AM

Sheesh, what's the big deal about spending Christmas alone? While I suspect I may be over-adjusted to being single, I've got my dogs, logs for the fireplace, a DVD player, and I'm a pretty darn good cook too. This year I have an invite to a friends large family gathering on Christmas day so that's the exception rather than the norm for me. I figure I can leave the dogs alone for a few hours at least.
Merry Christmas y'all!

Posted by: Texas Bubba on December 21, 2005 8:13 AM

I'm stunned. You could have done the Jewish Christmas thing in Philly. Great meal in Chinatown or (treating yourself gloriously) maybe even two. Then, a foray to the old Clef Club, that dingy jazz place (now moved to new digs where the chairs are not torn and taped but where the original building's soul has still refused to move in). The permanent residents there would surely have taken you under their wing. And what better music to listen to on a solo Christmas than blues-tinged jazz.

Posted by: DarkoV on December 21, 2005 9:17 AM

Have a very merry. And doesn't Hawaii come closer to the weather in Christmastime Bethlehem than that currently in Seattle?

Posted by: DarkoV on December 21, 2005 9:19 AM

I do remember my first Christmas after moving to New York. I was 20 years old, and working as the night clerk at the St. Moritz hotel. Had to work Christmas eve and night and what few friends I had were all out of town with their families.

I got so caught up in the maudlin tragedy of being totally alone on Christmas morning that I got a six-pack on the way back to my room, picked a scrap of a fir branch out of someone's trash and stuck it into a crack in the desk in my room. I sat there with an absolutely delicious sense of boho doom, sang a couple carols, drank my beer and went to sleep.

I can't describe the satisfaction I got from that, except, perhaps, it's always conforting to set a benchmark below which you don't expect ever to fall.

Posted by: Sluggo on December 21, 2005 10:02 AM

I don't celebrate Christmas.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 21, 2005 11:27 AM

I left home at an early age (16) and spent many a Christmas alone. However I always made sure to decorate the house and cook a special (with a few a alcohol fuelled dissasters) Christmas dinner.

2003 Christmas, boxing day I moved to Taiwan, so Christmas dinner was a Mc Donalds, clearing up business and jumping on a plane. 2004 back in H.K. decorating a new house I had purchased, while living in a depressingly attired rented appartment was a none event, it's like I've missed two years.

Fast forward to this year. Today I have put up a simple Christmas tree, with tinsel, lights and a few balls and five strategicaly place strips of tinsel. when my girlfriend (of five years), who works in China, Monday to Friday, walked into the appartment, it was like I bought her the biggest diamond one could imagine, she was thrilled.

As for me it looks great, I wish I had made the effort the last two years. I have the experience of being alone at Christmas, if you go that extra mile, it will be a week of happiness.

To those of you spending your Christmas as "one" I will raise my glass Tsing Tao, to you and say enjoy it my friends

Merry Christmas, Gregg

Posted by: Gregg on December 21, 2005 11:53 AM

Spending Xmas day alone can be bad. Spending the day after Xmas alone is much worse.

Because it is signaling that you have no one to spend your time with, and that kind of loneliness is very depressing.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on December 21, 2005 1:40 PM

Ian, on the contrary, I find freedom of being alone quite refreshing.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 21, 2005 1:52 PM

The difference between solitude and loneliness, maybe?

Posted by: Flutist on December 21, 2005 8:31 PM

The difference between solitude and loneliness, maybe?

Exactly. I used to love spending time alone. It gave me a chance to use my imagination, let my thoughts run wild, or just sing along to my favorite music.

Now, without family and friends, it is just painfully lonely.

You can handle it for a while, but when weeks turn to months, and months to YEARS, you become desperate and pathetic.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on December 21, 2005 9:18 PM

On the Blackfeet reservation most of the teachers used to be white so they weren't from Browning and they all cleared out for "home." (Most of them were young.) When I was teaching in Heart Butte, which is up in the foothills of the Rockies, one of the most remote villages, I didn't go "home." I felt most at home right there since I spent the Sixties there and fought to get back to teaching there in 1989.

But the kids were upset. "Why don't you go home?" they asked. "White people are supposed to go home now."

Finally I told them that the cluster of Christmas/solstice/New Years were a religious time for me and that I felt I should fast and pray while the planet tipped. They understood this and never bugged me again.

Happy Solstice! It's fifty degrees on the rez and maybe the planet has tipped all the way over on its side!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 21, 2005 11:18 PM

It's funny -- I have nice memories of Xmases past, and I approve of rituals and festivals in an abstract way. But I have very little attachment to Tgiving, Xmas, and my birthday. They just don't mean much to me. A small acknowledgment of each suffices. (The Wife woke me up with a massage on my birthday, for instance: can't beat that!) Generally speaking, though, I find the fuss that gets made about the major holidays 'way over the top. Too damn much -- too much activity, stress, and sentiment, as far as I'm concerned. To the point where the fun gets crushed out of them. I guess it'd suit me better if everyone viewed Tgiving and Xmas as good excuses for parties and dinners, and no more.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 22, 2005 2:41 AM

I'm spending my first Christmas alone this year, and I am actually looking forward to it. All of the people I work with are already complaining about the family problems that they know will come up and I'll be at home relaxing and just enjoying the day. I have plenty of decoration, Christmas Music and DVD's to keep me company. Plus all the fixings for a great dinner. What more could I want?

Posted by: Liz Baldwin on December 24, 2005 11:11 AM

Here I am.....and its Xmas eve. After my last two xmases I am just relaxing and thought I would play on the computer and see if I was alone being alone. I bought a suitcase today for a mid winter vacation later in Jan. and when I got home , to my suprise, I found a fat littlet santa in the bag who is now on the back of my couch. Funny but I found it not only odd but wonder if the forces that be didnt want me to be totally alone this eve and day. it does make me feel better and a little more in the Christmas spirit. Hes the only christmas decoration I have this year. now I suppose I will have a gingerale and maybe some cake while I watch reruns on TV.. Frederick

Posted by: Frederick J. Sharp on December 24, 2005 8:57 PM

I just got my first apartment this past fall, so I've enjoyed being alone; but that's my nature anyway, as I suffer from social anxiety. A small apartment makes it so I don't want to live here full-time, so that's a blessing in disguise for me.

This is my first Christmas alone, but I started talking to my families again so although I'm alone today, I'm really not.

Now, I just have to learn Skype so I can talk to some of them later today.

I'm a news junkie, and there's not much of it today, so I'm reading some bookmarks, and I thank you for this post. Next up, online content from The New York Review of Books.

Happy New Year, everyone! :o)))

Posted by: Aaron on December 25, 2005 1:50 PM

Well, here it is, Christmas Day. And I'd kill to be alone!


Oh ye gods, when will it end? When! Will! It! END!!!

Posted by: Brian on December 25, 2005 8:10 PM

It's all right now, the threat level is back down to yellow. Good night, and good luck.

Posted by: Brian on December 26, 2005 12:58 AM

I sometimes feel like I spend from mid-November through Jan 2 humoring the dominant culture -- just being exhausted trying to keep up with demands. Why don't people take it easier? I'm all for a good excuse for a party, but lordy, enough's enough.

The end of the year is about the only time I ever think in terms of "dominant culture," come to think of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 26, 2005 11:00 AM

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