'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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

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."

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."

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