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Singles forge new holiday traditions

As their ranks swell, singles reach out to others, pamper themselves, or simply relish their solitude.

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This year, in particular, she sees volunteering as a way to help people keep things in perspective. “There’s so much you can do. Whatever you care about, whatever is meaningful to you, there is probably a charitable organization attached to it.”

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As an animal lover, Ms. Hughes likes to walk dogs and groom cats at a shelter. “If I meet a guy doing the same thing, chances are good that we share a core value,” she says. “We’re attracted to doing something selfless.”

She also pet sits for people going out of town for the holidays. “It’s ridiculously satisfying,” she says. “The animals are so happy to see you.”

Ronald Lewis of Denver, who describes himself as “chronically single,” takes a more free-form approach to the holidays. “I love movie marathons, cooking, traveling to a random city, or having a lazy and quiet day at home,” he says.

For singles with children, the holidays bring other issues. Jeremy Vaught of Phoenix, a divorced father of three, found his first Christmases alone difficult. But, he says, “I have great friends from work and through church who have invited me into their lives during the holidays.”

Tomi Tuel, an author in Sacramento, was divorced when her two children were young. During the holidays, she enjoyed taking them places. “I braved large crowds that accompanied holiday parades and Christmas tree-lighting events,” she says. “I created new traditions and maintained old ones. For years it has been a tradition to get in our pj’s with mugs of hot chocolate and drive through the neighborhoods to see the Christmas lights.”

In Maplewood, N.J., a group of women ranging from 64 to nearly 80 – single, widowed, divorced – will gather on Dec. 25 for a meal and gift exchange. “We just enjoy eating together,” says Linda West Eckhardt, a cookbook author and member of the Maplewood Dining Club. “No one in our group would ever spend a holiday alone. We wouldn’t have it. We are always there for each other, and Christmas is no exception. We’ve invented a family. We have children and grandchildren. If they’re around, that’s great, but if they’re not, we have a good time.”

Marital status less a factor today

DePaulo, for one, sees signs of progress for singles. “Marital status doesn’t determine our social lives in quite as predictable ways as it once did,” she says. “A person who is married one holiday season may be divorced or widowed the next and then in a few years remarry, so people cycle through different marital statuses in a way that was much less common in the past.”

Even if singles don’t attend family gatherings, Christine Whelan, a visiting sociology professor at the University of Iowa, sees opportunities at other holiday parties. “If you are single and want a relationship, go out and meet as many people as you can at these parties,” she says.

But to well-meaning onlookers eager to serve as Christmas cupids, she offers this cautionary note: “Be careful before you play matchmaker. A lot of people are quite happy being single. While it’s certainly wonderful to introduce like-minded friends, be careful about putting too much pressure on your friends to pair up.”

While the holidays offer singles a chance to reach out to others – visiting an elderly relative or a neighbor, perhaps – the season also gives others an opportunity to include singles in activities.

“It’s important for people hosting holiday events to make a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for singles,” Professor Whelan says. “I’ve heard horror stories about hosts who don’t invite singles because they want even numbers. Don’t be that host or hostess. People are single for a whole lot longer than in the past.

They’re marrying later and living longer. Things are much more fluid. As a society, we need to be more welcoming of singles, especially during the holidays.”