Holiday plans for one

When going home is like playing '20 Questions,' singles tackle the holidays with a fresh spin

"Are you dating anyone? Why not?" "When will we ever become grandparents?"

Nothing like cutting to the chase. It may be only a matter of seconds after walking through the door for the holiday homecoming before the personal questions start to fly. For some of the 82 million single Americans, such an inquisition might be a little too familiar this time of year.

The holiday season can be a challenging time for many people. Single folks in particular often are a bit more aware of their solo status during this season of mistletoe, romantic candlelight dinners, and kisses at midnight on Dec. 31 - especially if they have yet to meet Mr. or Ms. Right.

That explains why they wince or squirm when bombarded with questions. Or why, for many singles, New Year's Eve ranks second only to Valentine's Day as their most dreaded holiday.

But more singles are finding ways to respond to the familial cross-examination without wishing they could shrink into their shoes. They might respond with humor ("No man could keep up with me!"), honesty ("Sure, I'd like to meet someone, but it just hasn't happened yet), self-deprecation ("Surely we have better things to talk about than my love life"), directness ("This is a difficult topic for me. Can we please not discuss it?), or even a request for help ("Know anyone you could fix me up with?).

And as for those dateless New Year's Eves, unattached men and women are making a greater effort to create a sense of community among fellow singles by organizing celebrations that can be just as meaningful and fun - even sans romance.

Take Charles Bentley, for example. The 40-something southern Californian isn't pining away for a girlfriend, although he hopes to eventually pair up with a special woman. His parents and older brother, who has a wife and three kids, don't badger him. But other relatives, who visit often from Oklahoma and Texas, give him plenty of grief.

"As they see it," he says, "any man over 22 who isn't married with a child is cause for raised eyebrows and a chorus of 'tsk, tsk.' "

It only adds fuel to the fire that he has a good job, owns a house, and is attractive. "An eligible, good-looking man like you should be beating them off with a stick!" they tell him.

Comments like this have often sprung Mr. Bentley from his seat to the nearest exit. But in recent years, he's learned to stay put and patiently explain that he has yet to meet that special someone, but he hopes to soon. He assures his audience that in the meantime, he's enjoying a rich and satisfying life - palling around with friends, playing golf, and putting in long, hard but gratifying hours at the office.

Others deflect questions with a dose of humor. "I haven't yet met a man who can keep up with me!" is the favorite line of Chicago go-getter Kristine Kappel.

If that's not enough of a conversation stopper, or if a single person has a younger sibling who always brings home a date, and he or she can't bear to face them (Ms. Kappel speaks from experience), just "sleep in every morning," she offers with a laugh.

New Yorker Nancy Tamosaitis learned to deftly change the subject during a 13-year courtship by the man who is now her husband.

When a single's love life becomes a topic of conversation, she suggests tossing a compliment to the questioner: "That amber sweater really brings out your brown eyes."

Ms. Tamosaitis admits this tactic was only mildly successful with her mother. On many occasions when her mother asked her if and when she was getting married, "I simply had to tell her I didn't want to go there," she says.

Humorous ways of coping

Some singles would rather revert to practical jokes - or at least to dream and scheme about them. David Samson, the author of numerous self-help books, many of which have a humorous bent, jokingly suggests bringing home a "dysfunctional date." This might be a friend who owes you a huge favor and is willing to pose as your boyfriend or girlfriend. He or she might complain about every detail, talk only about him or herself, and eat only a few bites of Mom's lovingly prepared feast.

"Next year, your family will insist that you come alone!" he says, admitting that he never really tried this. His family wouldn't fall for it anyway, he explains, since they know his clownlike ways all too well.

Another idea that makes Mr. Samson smile, but which he has never put into action, is the constantly ringing cellphone trick. Tell relatives what a wonderful person you've been seeing, say that he or she will be calling soon, and then have different friends call you every 15 minutes throughout the day.

All joking aside, most singles aren't too bothered by the barrage. In a poll conducted by Match.com, an online dating service, 78 percent of 1,300 singles polled said they planned to go home for the holidays. Of those, 68 percent said that explaining their status to family members is no big deal, but 10 percent equate this conversation with having a tooth pulled. Female friends and mothers are most likely to broach the topic, say those polled.

Welcoming the new year

Traditionally the most challenging event of the holiday season for those of solo status is New Year's Eve. But today's singles aren't ones to sit around the house and mope. Many are initiating gatherings with friends who are also dateless - and feeling just fine about it, thank you very much.

Kappel, for instance, had expected to spend the holiday with her boyfriend - until they split up a few months ago. Not willing to let that get her down, she has invited four close single friends to Chicago from their homes in Minneapolis, and Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., for what she calls a "city girls' New Year's Eve night."

It will really be a four-day adventure of sightseeing, shopping, eating at top restaurants, and, of course, lots of girl talk. "I believe that the holidays should be celebrated with the ones who mean the most to you, and for me, that means the girls who have been by my side for years," she says,

A 20-something public-relations professional, Kappel is putting her career first for now. She figures romance will come later. "It's important to keep in mind that a relationship doesn't make or break who you are," she says.

Starting new traditions

Carolyn Farley has never been fond of New Year's Eve. But she is crazy about Christmas. So every year, she celebrates Christmas twice - once with her parents, brother, sister, and her sister's family, and again, on New Year's Eve, with old friends.

Like Kappel, Ms. Farley and her friends travel long distances to be together. Sometimes she hops on a plane in North Carolina to go see them in Texas. But this year, they're flying to her.

On Dec. 31, for Round 2 of Christmas, she and her pals will cook a meal together, make long-distance calls to mutual friends, and open gifts at midnight. "It's really special to continue the holiday this way," she says.

"I love to be with my family, but part of growing up and not having my own family is realizing that I need to start my own traditions."

Her resolve to establish new holiday rituals despite the absence of a partner has also spurred Farley to host an annual Christmas party, become more intentional about decorating her home, and to start swapping small gifts with neighbors.

"Too many people wait to build traditions until they have someone to share them with," she says. "You just have to go ahead and do it."

Some singles choose to celebrate the new year with parties that have an offbeat theme.

Samson attended a memorable party of singles where each person took the stage for a few minutes to tell about his or her worst New Year's Eve date.

Another one he'll always remember was called a "mime singles new year's party." Until midnight, men weren't allowed to talk. They could respond to women's questions only by acting charades-style.

"We laughed hysterically for three or four hours," he recalls. "Women got the floor, and the men actually felt relieved that they didn't have to control the conversation."

A third idea put forth by some singles is a party where each person brings a date who is just a friend. That way, people aren't coupled off - at the outset of the evening, anyway.

Not in a party mood?

Singles who aren't up to New Year's Eve revelry might want to plan a more thoughtful, introspective evening - going to a lovely music concert, taking a walk in the moonlight, or jotting down spiritual goals.

For several years now, Lynate Pettengill, a single mother and life coach from Lawrence, Kan., has hiked in the woods with two of her closest friends on New Year's Eve. Midway through the hike, they take a break to think about the year ahead.

They even tuck notebooks into their backpacks so that they can record their goals, hopes, and dreams for the new year. Then they share them with each other, and keep tabs on one another's progress in the year following.

Maya Balle, a Bostonian who calls herself a "love coach" and advises singles on everything from navigating online dating sites to cultivating new friendships and making room in their hearts and lives for other people's children, recommends volunteering during the holidays. You'll bring tremendous cheer to others and to yourself by giving, she says.

Then, without forgetting her mission as a matchmaker, she adds with a wink: "You might even meet someone at the soup kitchen who shares your values, and shared values are what it's all about!"

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