Singles forge new holiday traditions

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

In the seven years that Alison Ashton has been single, she has not always been free to travel to California for Christmas with her family. But rather than lamenting either her single status or her absent relatives, Ms. Ashton, a freelance writer in Birmingham, Ala., has found new ways to celebrate – with friends.

“I’ve had some great holidays,” she says.

Christmas is a season of stereotypes. Popular images abound of happy families gathered around hearths and holiday tables. To the unattached, the whole country appears to be paired off – a giant Noah’s Ark. Yet with more than 90 million single or divorced people in the United States, images of holidays as totally ­family-oriented and couple-centered are outdated and ripe for revision.

“We’re in a transition time, societally, where we still think about holidays as if we all grew up in these nuclear families with a bunch of kids and low levels of divorce,” says Bella DePaulo, author of “Singled Out.” “But demographics are changing. Our ways of celebrating the holidays are also changing, but we don’t have a new set of images or ideas for these changes.”

Adjust expectations, plan, entertain

For Ashton, creating new images involves a three-pronged approach. First, she emphasizes the need to adjust expectations. “The same traditions don’t apply when you’re on your own,” she says.

Her second step is to make plans. “If you don’t like the idea of spending the holiday alone, be sure to initiate plans with friends. It can be difficult if you’re not proactive. That’s when you find yourself sitting at home, wishing you had made some plans.”
Ashton’s third suggestion is to entertain. “If you love to cook, invite other unattached folks over for the holiday. This can include couples, neighbors, friends, co-workers. Or make it potluck.” On Christmas Day, she and friends may head out for Chinese food and a movie.

Some singles enjoy solitude. But as Ms. DePaulo says, “Our images of holidays are of a houseful of people. It’s hard for people who want to celebrate on their own to be taken seriously.”

Lauren Mackler, a life coach in Newton, Mass., and author of the forthcoming “Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life,” notes that nearly half of US adults – 43 percent – are living single lives. “It’s been increasing over the last three decades,” she says. “Yet how people think about being alone hasn’t changed very much.”

Too often, Ms. Mackler says, people regard being alone as something to pity. They think, “Here it is Christmas, and I have nobody.” Instead, she says, they should look at aloneness as an opportunity for freedom and growth.

Mackler suggests making a list of possible ways to spend the holidays. “If you’ve always wanted to go to Italy, maybe you can find a low fare on Orbitz. It’s also an opportunity to be of service to someone else. It’s an antidote to loneliness, because you’re doing something meaningful. You can catch up with friends who are also alone. Or go off to a retreat and be introspective. Or get books you’ve always wanted to read. Build a fire, light candles, and nurture yourself.”

Solitude can be relished sometimes

Barbara Kilikevicius, a mother of three in San Diego, has been single for almost 20 years. Although friends sometimes urged her to spend Christmas with them, she often declined. “I absolutely love a holiday alone once in a while,” she says. “I spend my day in my pajamas reading, watching old Christmas movies, and chatting on the phone with friends and family who are far away.”

For Kim Hughes, editor-in-chief of Click magazine and Lavalife, an online dating service, the holidays serve as a time to steer singles “away from potentially depressing things toward possibly good things ... that might put them in line for meeting another single.”

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.”

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.”

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