Not home for the holidays

More and more singles are sharing their holiday table with friends, rather than their family.

There was a deep silence on the other end of the line.

Margo Donohue had just informed her Mother that she wouldn't be home for Thanksgiving. In some families, such a blatant violation of ancestral tradition would be grounds for ostracism. Or, at least, a serious guilt trip.

But Margo's mom recovered rather quickly. It wasn't that she didn't care about her adult daughter's absence. Like many families, the Donohues celebrated the day with a houseful of relatives, heaps of food and much good cheer. The family had also always welcomed "holiday orphans" into their home. What made Margo's absence palatable to Mrs. Donohue was that her daughter was going to carry on that tradition by hosting a group of single friends in her own home.

That was three years ago. What began as an alternative to trekking from Margo's home in New York to her parents' home in California has turned into a highly anticipated annual event among her single friends.

Margo is far from alone.

The numbers of divorced and never-married American adults have more than doubled in the past 25 years, US Census surveys show. More and more of these singles are choosing to share their holiday table - be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah - with unattached friends instead of parents, siblings, and dear Aunt Eleanor.

Reasons for making this choice vary. For some singles, it's purely practical: distance, expense, and the hassle of dealing with crowds on some of the busiest travel weekends of the year. For others, the choice is more deliberate and emotional: They feel a stronger connection to friends than family, at least at this stage of their lives. And they want to test their wings as independent adults.

Donohue, a book publicist, hosts an orphan Thanksgiving each year. "One of the things I am most thankful for, at least during this part of my life, are the friendships I have created as an adult. These are the relationships I have brought into my life, and they are the most important, day in and day out."

Amy Norris, who lives in St. Louis, agrees. "A gathering of single friends sometimes feels more meaningful because I have the time and energy to focus on enjoying the moment, feeling the gratitude, instead of making sure my turkey is as good as Mom's always was."

Ms. Norris and her friends don't abandon tradition altogether. Instead, they all bring one or two dishes from their own family recipes. "We share traditions, but also get to pick and choose the ones we share rather than feeling saddled with the whole accumulation of family traditions. One year we had turkey and only starches; three kinds of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and rolls. No vegetables or salad."

The only rule at her annual Thanksgiving gathering is "no social expectations." She explains: "People can stay as long as they want or leave right after eating to go home and nap. And we definitely dress down. Elastic waistbands for sure!"

By taking away all the "shoulds," adds Norris, "I can feel the spirit of the holiday much more clearly."

Those who participate in Thanksgivings for singles often recall them with humor. Molly Theobald, a city planner in Washington, tells about the time she and her roommate cooked a turkey for 20 friends. "Your mom may have been cooking it for 25 years, but when push comes to shove, you're like 'how do I do this?' At least we remembered to take out the [giblet] bag," she laughs. "The bird was as big as they make 'em. We had to put the 'Big Kahuna' on the floor of the car."

After six Thanksgivings away, Ms. Theobald's parents have gotten used to her absence. But she always goes home for Christmas, except for last year. She and her sister opted to go to San Diego and Mexico. They had to promise to be home this year. "It was kind of a quid pro quo," she says.

What's most difficult for singles going home for the holidays is their singlehood. Mitchell Brant of Great Expectations dating service explains: "Because the holidays are supposed to resemble a glowing Norman Rockwell family portrait, singles are constantly reminded that they have yet to create a family of their own."

It's this dynamic that leads many singles to celebrate together, says Trish McDermott, online dating expert for Match.Com: "Many singles will tell you that traditional family gatherings can be emotionally trying, especially when most of the family is happily paired off.... Single friends help to affirm each others' life circumstances and decisions."

For some singles, the answer is to participate in both kinds of gatherings. Mary Talbot, of Barrington, R.I., and her friends join their own families for turkey during the day and then "decompress" together in the evening. "We spend time with the families that we love, but we can also look forward to spending time with people in the same stage of life."

The time with her friends is important, says Ms. Talbot, for as a "never married, but hopeful," woman, she is all too familiar with holidays spent "within the traditional family context where marriage and babies are held in such high esteem yet are goals that have been elusive to me."

Of course, the challenges single people speak of aren't limited to Thanksgiving. December is often even more laden with family rituals and expectations. And instead of just one day, it's often a marathon of events.

The key for any holiday, says family counselor Julia Boyd, "is creating your own joy." She adds: "Whatever you do, do it with abandon."

She spent a recent Christmas snorkeling by herself in Jamaica. "There were times when I thought it would be nice to do this with someone. But I didn't give up all my energy thinking about it."


You're not going home for the holidays. How do you break the news?

* Gently. Put yourself in your parents' shoes. Such a change in tradition could be a major disappointment.

* Strike a deal. Promise to be home for the next major holiday. Or agree to travel home for your next week-long vacation.

* Solomonic solution. Spend the day with friends, and the evening with your family.

* Carry on family traditions. Make Mom's stuffing recipe for your friends.

* Explain that your decision is not personal, but is important for your journey into adulthood. You need to strike out on your own or test your ability to host.

* When the day arrives, call home. Tell your parents how much everyone loved Grandma's apple pie recipe or your family's Christmas Eve storytelling tradition.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.