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'I won't be home for Christmas'

Millions of Americans will celebrate a 'holiday for one' away from family. Many find ways to cherish the spirit of the day.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2005

Growing up in a close-knit family in Singapore, Desiree Koh cherished the Christmases she spent with her parents and brother. Even after she immigrated to the United States nine years ago as a college student, her family joined her in Chicago for the holidays.

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But in 2001 their vacation schedules no longer meshed. Ms. Koh, now a publicist, found herself on her own, 9,000 miles from her family on Dec. 25.

"It's a little jarring the first year alone without family for the holidays," she says. "I was a little bit at a loss."

As the strains of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" fill the December air, a record number of Americans - 63.5 million, according to AAA - are crowding planes, trains, and cars to share the holidays with loved ones. At the same time, millions of less-visible celebrants, like Koh, are preparing to observe Christmas on their own.

Culture-watchers point to a variety of sociological changes that are increasing the ranks of those spending what Koh calls "a holiday for one." These include growing numbers of immigrants separated from relatives by oceans, high divorce rates, military duty in Iraq, 24/7 work schedules, and a large single population. The Census Bureau reports that 49.8 percent of American households are headed by single people.

For Ms. Koh, who is Chinese, this will be her fourth Christmas alone. Typically, friends invite her to share Christmas Eve dinner. But, she says, "I never want to impose on others' family time together on Christmas Day." So she puts a "special spin" on the holiday in Chicago's Chinatown.

"When everyone is opening presents and sipping egg nog, I'm indulging in Chinese tea and dim sum," Koh says. "The bustle of my favorite restaurant, sharing tables with others who are also spending the day alone, and enjoying some 'comfort food' cheers the spirits nicely - not as well as if my family was around, but at least I still feel like part of a community."

Later she goes to an old-time movie theater for a double matinee of "White Christmas" and "It's a Wonderful Life." There's even a Christmas sing-along. A call to her family in Singapore rounds out the day.

Work takes him to Sri Lanka that day

Christmas will be a workday for Stephen Matthews. Instead of celebrating with his family in Toronto, he is in Sri Lanka. As director of a global rapid response team for World Vision, he is helping 700 journalists who are expected to cover the first anniversary of the Dec. 26 tsunami. His wife, Sue, will join him. "It will be a new and memorable Christmas moment," he says.

Before flying to Colombo last Sunday, Mr. Matthews enjoyed three Christmas gatherings with members of his blended family. The third included his three daughters and his stepchildren.

This is not the first time. His work with the humanitarian relief organization often takes him to disaster areas around the world for four or five weeks. A month ago, when he learned that he would be away for Christmas, he says he and his children "talked about whether it's time for me to pursue a job that would let me be home more. They said, 'No, this is fine.' "

Speaking of their current separation, Matthews says, "We should be able to manage it well. I'm going to call them on Christmas. The beauty of the time we live in is that I can carry a cellphone around the world, and anybody can call me at any time."

Siblings share Christmas via webcam

High-tech communication will also bridge the miles for Amy Mutza and her brother, Charlie. For the second year in a row, he cannot get time off from his job in San Diego to travel to their parents' home in East Windsor, N.J. But on Christmas Day, as they did last year, the siblings will hook up small web cameras on laptops in their respective living rooms.