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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.

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Recalling last Christmas, Ms. Mutza says, "It was nice to be able to see him open the stuff we gave him, and talk to him. He made a big deal of unwrapping and throwing paper everywhere."

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Some singles complain that employers make it impossible for them to join family gatherings at Christmas.

"Single people are often the ones who are asked to work on the holidays," says Thomas Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America. "People say, 'Look, you don't have kids. Joe has kids.' " He suggests telling a boss, "This isn't fair - let's rotate. I may live alone, but I've got family and friends, and it's just as important to be together."

For military families, holiday separations can become a fact of life. This is the second Christmas that Laura Lahood has spent the day thousands of miles from her husband, Maj. Al Lahood. He was deployed to Iraq in mid-October. Six Christmases ago he was in Kuwait. That time her in-laws flew Mrs. Lahood and her two young sons to Boston to spend Christmas with them. This year she and their five children, including 5-year-old triplet girls, will stay home at Fort Polk, La.

"It's easier to be home and in your own environment," she says. "We can maintain our traditions. It's harder for my husband." She notes that spouses sent packages to Iraq: an artificial tree, gifts, pictures the children drew - "stuff to make it cheerier over there."

Last Saturday families at Fort Polk made holiday connections with loved ones in Iraq via a video link. Mrs. Lahood hopes her husband can call on Christmas Day.

Back in the civilian world, the idea of spending Christmas alone is enough to send some people to their travel agent with an urgent plea: "Quick, book me on a trip."

Last week, a divorced real estate broker whose children are spending Christmas with his former wife asked Karen Carmody, a travel counselor at Brea Travel American Express in Brea, Calif., to find a destination that was "exotic and not too cold." She suggested Hong Kong and Bangkok. He will leave Dec. 23 for 10 days. Otherwise, he told her, "I'd be sitting home alone."

A chance to get out of town - or the country

Home alone is also where another of Ms. Carmody's clients, a widow in her mid-80s, does not want to be. She usually spends Christmas with her children and grandchildren, but this year they are going skiing. Since most residents at her retirement home will be with their families, she has booked a cruise to Mexico.

For one new widow, a solo holiday was instructive. Rayne Golay spent Christmas without her spouse for the first time last year. Describing the challenge and the tears, she says, "I walked around that home [in Geneva, Switzerland] where we had celebrated Christmases for the past 25 years with my husband's family and my family, remembering the atmosphere and the joy, the togetherness. Then there was nobody."

Out of sorrow came a valuable lesson. Even amid grief, people need to "find a little spark inside to make them reach out," she says. "I've discovered I have to take the first step toward people, and when I do, people are available." This year Mrs. Golay, of Cape Coral, Fla., will join friends for Christmas meals. She has written a novel based on her experiences, "Life Is a Foreign Language."

Whatever the circumstances that keep other loved ones apart in December - work, war, great distances - Koh takes a philosophical approach. She concedes that "a holiday for one" is "not the optimal way to spend Christmas." But, she adds, "Rather than just sitting around and moping, you might as well get out and draw from the spirit that's there."