By Jane Gaffin
It is a myth that nobody should be alone on Christmas.
Some of my most enjoyable Christmases have been spent alone, leisurely writing lengthy email letters that I didn't get around to earlier. Friends echo my sentiments. The secret is to be prepared so as to avoid suffering first-degree agony.
Agony was what happened to Sue, who, by nature, is happy, gregarious and stays in a perpetual social whirl. Her first Christmas alone was caused by circumstances beyond her control. A widow of two months, she could not pretend to be bubbly and carefree, nor was she able to psyche herself into a mood to shop or decorate for her favorite time of year.
Against her better judgement, Sue gave in and accepted an invitation to join friends for dinner. During the first course, she started crying and could not pull herself together. Embarrassed, her eyes red and her face bloated, and through tears and apologies, she made a premature exit and finished her misery at home.
She had known she did not have the emotional stamina to endure the affair. And she felt worse for believing she had spoiled Christmas for her well-meaning friends, whose presence had not dulled her pain, anyway.
The next year, this lady was prepared.
When I telephoned on Christmas Day she had made no plans to share the day with anybody. After last year's trauma, she had discovered Christmas as a special time to be alone and did not want to be encumbered by people. If inspired, she was free to talk to her husband's spirit and cry a little.
The night before, she had attended midnight church services. Then she had bought the abundant New York Times weekend edition, which was spread over the floor of her townhouse. When she cannot visit New York City, The Times is her contact with the culture she loves so much: operas, art, plays, books, specialty foods.
While devouring the newspaper and gorging on bagels and expensive champagne--a once-in-a-year treat for this busy executive secretary--The Nutcracker Suite blasted over the sound system at window-rattling, head-throbbing decibels. She then opened her small gifts from friends: art cards, CDs, homemade soap, books and a miniature replica of her employer's newest offshore oil rig.
The wrapping paper, ribbons and bows were strewn cheerfully around the living room, and the glittering tinsel and ornaments danced to the glow of the evergreen lights. The day was enhanced by long-distance calls from friends and relatives, wishing her the Merry Christmas she was having.
The first rule for spending Christmas alone is not to try to deceive yourself into believing that December 25th will not come. Streets, stores and offices are aglow with lights, decorations and carols. Everybody is busy, buying and wrapping gifts, rushing to Christmas parties and packing to catch the next jet to an exotic place with a loved one.
You are staying home alone.
Be glad to be on your own turf, eagerly looking forward to crafting things for your own amusement. Being stranded in a crowd of frustrated travellers, waiting on weathergrounded aircraft or having to be bussed to your destination, is not an ideal way to begin the holidays.
Even when prior plans have been made, everybody should be somewhat prepared to activate Plan B, otherwise it could be emotionally devastating. Christmas alone does not just happen because of lifestyle. Emergencies, such as a blizzard, accident, illness or death, can dump the best-laid plans into a tailspin.
Tina's first Christmas alone was pure hell. She did not think everybody hated her; she thought nobody on earth knew she existed to hate her!
There was no tree decorated, no turkey to roast, no company to entertain and her man had to go home unexpectedly for the holidays. Her heavy workload with a publishing house dictated that a get-away was impossible.
There had been adequate time to make plans. Yet she had been so distraught about the idea of being alone she felt sorry for herself.
She did not know how to cope and tried to ignore Christmas. She did not give gifts, send cards or buy her favorite foods. The cupboards were practically bare, for she had avoided the crowded stores, which had depressed her during the Christmas rush. Fortunately, she is an avid reader and had acquired a trashy, fast-paced, mindless paperback, which she used to try to cheat insistent, lonely thoughts from creeping into her mind.
We exchanged letters about this unhappy episode. And, now, she celebrates with friends the day before or the day after, but Christmas Day alone has become almost traditional.
Tina starts early to look forward to the Big Day.
Since she decorates a tree in late November, she votes for a light-weight artificial one. No matter how cold the temperature, she can pull the plastic tree from storage, adjust the wire branches and have a perfectly-shaped, instant tree. And there is no fire hazard or messy, brittle needles.
As Christmas nears, a few boughs for decorations can be cut in the woods or bought in the florist shop to make the house smell good.
Her reply to ribbing about the early, fake tree is: ‘I enjoy a tree before not after Christmas.'
Greeting cards are displayed prominently as cheerful reminders of friends who care. If nobody sends cards, you can mail some to yourself! You care about yourself, don't you? When the tree is decorated, Tina starts haunting specialty stores and stuffing her cupboards and freezer with smoked oysters, caviar and canned delicacies, deli meats and cheeses, coffee and alcoholic beverages; and concocts things she normally doesn't: kuhlua, a luscious Christmas cake, carmel candies and dips chocolates. She unceremoniously wraps nut cookies in aluminum foil, tied with a bright ribbon, for children, who love unwrapping unknown things. The parents appreciate the interest shown their youngsters and nobody cares that she never won the Betty Crocker Bake- Off.
To get in the spirit, Tina gives small, wrapped, token gifts--mixed nuts, chocolates, wild rice, homemade goodies, leather bookmarks--to her favorite service people who look after her year-round: mechanic; landlord; hairdresser; postal clerks; shop owners; insurance agents. Even her stockbrokers and bankers. (She must have a better relationship with hers than I do with mine!)
Over the coming year, she receives special attention and often is given small, promotional items at Christmas. As these gifts trickle in, she wraps and arranges them under the tree. If her great-grandparents send money, she buys something wanted but definitely not needed. Self-gifts are wrapped and heaped under the tree.
On Christmas morning, she is an excited as a little kid. There are wonderful things waiting. She made sure.
My friend Beverly, a divorcee, indulges herself with cuddly housecoats and lounging pajamas, then can hardly wait for Christmas to unwrap and wear them; she over- indulges in books, which she can hardly wait to read, and original paintings, for which an empty wall space is a friendly reminder of the forthcoming hanging event.
Under the tree, Beverly plants small, wrapped parcels, usually games and gadgets with which to tinker or assemble. (I'm sure she is a frustrated mechanic and plumber!) She believes one box of Swiss chocolates won't do much damage to the best or worst figure.When co-workers in the insurance office, where she is employed as a claims investigator, asks: ‘did you have a good Christmas', she truthfully answers ‘yes' and glosses over a litany. If someone presses and the gifts are from herself, Beverly makes enigmatic facial expressions, and answers: ‘Oh, from a secret admirer'.
Christmas breakfast or brunch must be a shameless treat, rich and caloric, such as three-grain pancakes, homemade sausages, smothered in hot Canadian maple syrup and gallons of aromatic, special-blend, South American coffee which can be laced with whatever liqueur makes you feel good. Maybe a shot of Baileys Irish Cream on the side. Christmas dinner may be a Cornish game hen, stuffed with wild rice...or any favorite food. By all means, a bottle of nice wine for those who imbibe in such luxuries.
Set the table elegantly, even if you recently moved into a new place and are improvising with an overturned cardboard box. Perhaps a self-present was a lace tablecloth, colorful placemats, wine glasses or ironstone.
Dress code for the hostess is make-up and perhaps a floor-length gown, glittering earrings and satin-and-sequin heels. Whatever, no rumpled jeans, sweatshirt and house slippers allowed, male or female.
Background music is festive. But the television and Internet are best left off, unless you are strong-hearted and can tolerate watching sitcoms and musical specials featuring families and friends laughing, singing, dancing, exchanging gifts and feasting. Rather than watching the tube or YouTube, go for a ski or a walk to make your skin and soul tingle. You'll feel righteous!
Of all my Christmas-alone friends, the bagel-and-champagne lady celebrates most lavishly. However, the occasion must be individually tailored, depending on financial wherewithal and outside influences beyond your control. She's not an athletic or outdoorsy person but has been known to buy herself a computer gadget, then, in between reading the New York Times, spend the day learning to operate it. They all agree that under no circumstances accept an invitation to attend a Christmas dinner gathering when you know that the hostesses, who are virtual strangers, pity you and simply feel guilt pangs at the thought of letting you spend the day alone.
A definite "no" to those type invitations. You'd be better off gaining a different perspective by volunteering services in the kitchen and cleaning up the dining hall between seatings at one of the local churches or Salvation Army that present fabulous Christmas Day Feasts to those people in your community who are truly alone with nothing except each other's company.
The Christmas Aloners all agree, too, that Christmas alone can be a tough challenge. Through commercialism, we are trained to believe that everywhere in the world, everybody else is gathering with friends and families to celebrate a happy, festive season.
Regardless of that myth, easily dispelled by veterans who have spent Yuletides shivering in muddy foxholes with nothing for company save a breast-pocket Bible, Christmas Day can be turned into a satisfying, rewarding--even enchanting--experience if you view December 25th with keen anticipation and plan ahead...and remember, you are not the only person in the world spending Christmas alone.