Christmas is a time of comfort, joy, and a shitload of cultural expectations about family and togetherness.
This year, I’ll be spending my third Christmas in a row alone; I also spent Thanksgiving in 2015 and 2016 alone. Being by yourself on a special day is actually not the worst thing in the world, but the idea that a person who celebrates Christmas might spend December 25 alone or apart from loved ones is often treated as a problem to be solved. Being alone on Christmas, we’re told, is an aberration. It’s not just sad; it’s tragic. And, look: I, too, cry every time Kevin McCallister’s mom shows up the end of Home Alone, you guys. But the reality is, lots of people spend Christmas alone or apart from family every year, for all sorts of reasons, and it’s...fine. And even if it kinda sucks, there are a bunch of ways you can make it suck a tiny bit less, or at least make it a better choice than the alternatives (like spending $1,000 on a 20-hour flight around the world, for example).
So if you’re thinking about or planning on spending Christmas alone or alone-ish — perhaps you’ll be with your partner or a friend but aren’t traveling home to see your family of origin — and have some questions/concerns, I’m here to talk you through it!
1. “Hi, yes, I have a question. I might end up being alone on Christmas but I don’t really feel like deciding or planning what I want to do that day. Can I just, like, wing it?”
You absolutely cannot wing it. The most important advice I can give you for a solo Christmas is to have a plan. I mean, at the very least, you have to accept that a lot of businesses are closed on Christmas, and you need to know if you’re going into work or if you should buy some groceries or whatever. So you really can’t wait until Christmas Eve to think about it. And having a more detailed plan is even better.
2. “OK, fine. Where do I start?”
Take a little time to think about your relationship to Christmas and how you feel about spending it alone. Maybe you don’t normally mind being alone, but you love Christmas and are worried it’s going to be pretty rough. Maybe you don’t think it’s a huge deal to be alone on Christmas, but you still want to make it a nice day. Maybe you don’t really want to be around acquaintances, but you wouldn’t mind being in the presence of strangers. Maybe you don't even observe Christmas but are reading this anyway because you feel like the tips could still apply to you! (They might!!!) It’s very helpful to think on this for a bit before you start mapping out your day.
Broadly speaking, here are some directions you could go in:
• You could do a bunch of Christmas stuff and/or honor your Christmas traditions solo in an effort to feel joy and cheer.
• You could aim to make it a more-special-than-average-day, but opt out of doing things that are particularly Christmas-ish (and thus might make you feel kinda bummed out).
• You could do your best to pretend Christmas isn’t happening and make it feel like a truly boring day.
• If this is a rough time of year for you or you’re alone for reasons that are difficult, you could totally lean into how shitty you feel and wallow all day.
• You could choose to stay home, or you could try to get out of the house and do something that’ll cheer you up and/or distract you. (Or you could do a little of Column A and a little of Column B.)
3. “Does it really matter what I do all day?”
Eh, yes and no. Here’s the thing about spending Christmas alone: because it’s a day that has been imbued with a lot of meaning and mythology, you will basically remember what you did on a solo Christmas for at least the next 3-5 years and potentially forever. So whatever you decide to do, you should do something that feels, if not special, then at least intentional.
But your plan can be pretty loosely defined, and you can (and should!) build in some alternative programming in case you want to change course the day of, or get hit with some serious unexpected sad feelings (more on those later).
4. “OK, I think I want to stay home. What should I do with myself all day?”
Here are a bunch of ideas:
Do things that feel distinctly Christmas-ish. If not being able to participate in your favorite Christmas traditions is going to make you feel particularly sad or lonely, well...just do the traditions alone! There are no Christmas police who are going to bust down your door, SWAT-style, if they find out you’re eating a Christmas ham without a half-dozen relatives present. So fuck it! Anyway, going this route might include activities like decorating your home, turning on your Christmas tree, opening any gifts that friends/family have sent you (I definitely recommend waiting until Christmas to open gifts!), eating foods you associate with Christmas, listening to Christmas music, watching Christmas movies, and/or FaceTiming with friends and family who are celebrating.
Do a puzzle. Maybe a Christmas one! Maybe a regular one! Maybe both, if they are on the smaller side! Puzzles are both relaxing and stimulating, and are a great way to pass time and forget about the outside world. (Read more on the magic of puzzles here.)
Work on your hobbies. It’s a great day to catch up on whatever hobby you can lose yourself in, and that brings you joy and fulfillment! If you don’t already have a hobby, you can get some ideas here and here.
Eat yummy food. Even if you aren’t eating a traditional Christmas meal, eating something delicious and a little special can be very uplifting. And cooking or baking is an activity in itself! (It’s also totally reasonable to order in, or to go to a restaurant.) My go-to for holidays alone is lasagna soup or the beef stew from The Joy of Cooking, both of which are a bit more involved/time-consuming than your average weeknight recipe. Other good things to consume throughout the day: fresh croissants or other baked goods (pick them up from a bakery on Christmas Eve), crusty bread topped with whipped feta and delicious roasted veggies, homemade pizza (or a good frozen one), tater tots, avocado toast, and delicious hot chocolate/coffee/tea. I also strongly endorse baking these chocolate chip cookies.
Oh and if you have nice dishes, definitely use them!
Clean the crap out of your apartment. Not only is cleaning super therapeutic, but being super productive on a day when everyone else is literally doing nothing can give you an extra lil’ mood boost.
Binge-watch a show, movie series, or podcast, or read/listen to a book. Such as...
• Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts
• Planet Earth
• The Royal House of Windsor
• The six-part podcast Dirty John
• Jane the Virgin. I highly recommend Jane if you just kind of want to zone out/be cheered up.
• Station Eleven. This is a great book to read if you’re feeling pretty bummed and don’t want to pretend otherwise. I read it in December 2015, right before I spent my first Christmas alone, and it was exactly what I needed. It captures the feelings of loneliness and light despair without being heavy-handed, and while still being hopeful and lovely.
• Holidays on Ice (audiobook). IMHO, everyone should listen to this on Christmas or Christmas Eve, regardless of whether they are alone or not.
Go for a stroll or a ride. Getting some fresh air and winter sky may make you feel better (and it will likely not make you feel worse). So if you can easily and safely get out for a walk or a stroll or a ride, do it! If you can’t, consider whether there’s another way you can move your body and/or be outside for a bit. There’s something about the hushed cold and lack of people and cars out on Christmas Day that just feels right. I recommend taking your walk in the late afternoon, right as Christmas Day is turning to Christmas Night; it’ll break things up a bit, and help you power through the night shift.
Indulge in some skincare. I didn’t, like, get the sheet mask craze for a while, but now I’m totally on board. It really does feel nice and pampering! Maybe also have a go-round with Dr. G’s brightening peel. You could also do a full body exfoliation and then drench yourself in coconut oil. The goal is to just feel soft and dewy as h*ck.
Light some candles. Whether you are sad or happy, candles just feel right for this occasion. (So do Christmas lights, so if you’re on the fence about whether or not to put up a tree, definitely put up the tree!) As Lindsay Ostrom writes in this really great guide to being sad at the holidays: “I fully embrace the cheesiness — there is something just so magical about a flame. Since it gets dark so early now, every night I come home from work and I light a candle. It feels special and sacred and spiritual, and I don’t need to explain anything to anyone. As it burns gently through the night, I am always thinking of Afton and the hope I have that the light of his tiny soul is still alive, glowing bright, safe and warm and held. And that from this broken and harsh earthly realm, mine is, too. Keep that candle lit.”
Wear pajamas all day. But not, like, the outfit you slept in. No — get up, wash your face, brush your teeth, take a shower (or at least put on clean underwear), and then put on fresh clean jammies. If you think wearing Christmas jammies all day sounds fun, do that! I’m a big fan of the old-school flannel pajama shirt and pants. But really, you should just wear whatever pajamas or soft clothes you feel really safe and comfortable in. The only requirements are that they are clean, and that they are an intentional choice.
Oh and regardless of what your in-home plans are, you should make a little time to clean/tidy your house a few days before Christmas so it feels as cozy and bright and homey as possible. Trust me on this one.
5. “Wow, OK, that was a lot! And what if I want to get outside the house?”
Go for it! I’ve found that public spaces have a kind of mystical, almost spooky quality on Christmas Day — everyone sort of knows that being in public instead of at home is unusual, and that we all have our own reasons for being there. In my experience, this shared reality is quite comforting.
If you want to explore the world outside your home on Christmas, here are some options:
Sign up to work. If you’re in a profession where they need people to work on Christmas, it’s totally worth doing. Not only does this give you a very clearly-defined activity, you can often make bank while doing so. (You also may be doing your coworkers a favor, which is nice!) And depending on your line of work, you may be able to get a bunch of work done that you’ve been meaning to get to, or just do admin stuff like cleaning out your inbox and desk.
Go to the movies. Hell, go to three movies! And if there’s a nicer-than-average theater in your area, go to that one, even if it’s a bit of a drive. Buy your tickets in advance as a way of committing to your plans (and ensuring you can see exactly what you want to see). And definitely treat yourself to popcorn and snacks. Like...you’re doing the thing, so do the damn thing.
Go skiing. A very good tip from my Jewish coworker!
Volunteer. Doing kind things for others is a well-established way to connect with other people and boost your own mood.
Get out of your house...but go to another mostly-private space. There are a lot of advantages to spending your solo Christmas in a nice-ish hotel or AirBnB (even just one in your own town!). If you are drawn to things like fresh towels and sheets that you didn’t have to wash yourself, a room with a nice view, and only interacting with strangers, then it might be worth it.
Go to a tourist attraction, museum, or historical site. The first time my then-boyfriend and I didn’t “go home” and see our families of origin for Christmas, we did a nice breakfast and opened gifts on Christmas morning, and then went to Houston’s Museum of Natural Science in the afternoon. It ended up being a perfect activity. Turns out, when you’re feeling a bit sorry for yourself, doing things like looking at the bones of humans who lived thousands of years ago and considering the vastness of time and space (WE ARE BUT SPECKS! A MERE DAY MEANS NOTHING!!!) can really put shit in perspective.
6. “Speaking of feeling sorry for yourself, you said something earlier about wallowing. Is that still on the table?”
Yes! The other big option here is to just lean in to how terrible you feel. But! You still have to have a plan! And even if you don’t plan to wallow, you should read this part anyway — because sad feelings might sneak up on you, and you should know that it’s OK to scrap the lasagna soup and puzzles and just let your feelings wash over you.
I’m actually just going to quote the wonderful Captain Awkward here, because she is the one who first introduced me to this option, and she explains it best:
“We can make light of being alone this time of year, but if you're alone not by choice, it frankly sucks, and I'm not going to even try to cheer you up or mention that movie where Jimmy Stewart is a depressed guy who learns to appreciate life in the end. Instead, I am going to give you my friend Mikey's ritual for fully embracing a day of sadness:
What you'll need to do:
• Pull all your shades and curtains so no daylight gets in.
• Listen to sad music. Mozart's Requiem, Jeff Buckley's Grace album, whatever makes you cry.
• Read old letters, emails, and diary entries from happier (or even sadder times).
• Read a poem.
• Take a nap. Take several.
• If you have a pet, hug the crap out of it.
• If you miss someone, write them a very long letter (that you might not necessarily send).
• Cry if you need to. Let it all out.
• DON'T try to talk yourself out of feeling sad and lonely, or beat yourself up about how you feel.
• DO call someone if you feel like you might really be in trouble or start having thoughts of hurting yourself.
• When you wake up on December 26, open up all the shades and let the light in. Eat something that's good for you. Give yourself credit for surviving a hard thing.
• DO run this by an actual mental health professional if that's a concern for you, since neither Mikey nor I are that.
If you are bummed out about something, tell somebody about it. Your friends are only a text or tweet away, and you won't ‘ruin’ their day if you reach out for a second.
• Watch your intake of substances. It may be really tempting to escape into an altered state, but without a designated driver, administrator of water/ibuprofen, or spotter, please go slow, OK?
• Remember that it's just one day, it comes every year, you've gotten through it this long, and you'll get through it again.
Mikey swears that by taking a day or two indulge sadness to the point where it almost becomes ridiculous, it's easier to shake it off and keep going.”
(I ❤️ Captain Awkward!)
7. “I feel OK about spending Christmas alone, but I’m anxious about telling other people about my plans; I don’t want to be judged or have to defend my choice. What should I say?"
It really depends on what you’re comfortable with. My goal has always been to a) make it clear that I have plans (because I do!), and b) tell the truth, but obscure the fact that I’ll be alone. I do this mainly because I don’t want to be pressured to join their holiday celebration (which is a truly kind thing to offer, but I’m good!) or have to endure hearing “But you can’t be ALONE on CHRISTMAS!” (Yes, I can! And I WILL!!!) So my preferred reply is something to the effect of, “Oh, nothing exciting — just staying around here, keeping things chill. How about you?” You could also share a little bit about your plans: “Working all day and then making lasagna soup later!” And a more forthcoming version might be something like, “I’m taking some me time! I’ll probably make some food, see a movie, do a face mask, start a puzzle — you know, fun solo stuff! I’ve been dying for a quiet night to myself for ages.”
Ideally, if you use one of these scripts, they won’t press you further or turn it into a huge thing. But if they do, keep your tone breezy, be vague and boring, and change the subject/turn things back to their plans.
8. “Can I just not tell anyone I’m going to be alone?”
You don’t have to tell everyone you’re going to be alone, but I’mma need you to tell someone. Look: I’m a big fan of safety, you guys!! (See also: Captain Awkward’s note about being careful with substances.) And in general, telling trusted friend about your whereabouts is just good practice. So choose the kindest and most decent person in your life and tell them how you are feeling about everything and let them know how they can best support you. If you want them to give you some space and not fuss or fret over you all day, tell them that! (But also please agree to text them/reply to texts a couple times during the day to show signs of life. Again, safety!!!)
9. “Yeah, I have more of a comment than a question. Christmas is about FAMILY and JESUS and it looks like liberal BuzzFeed is participating in the WAR ON CHRISTMAS and WHY would anyone turn their back on their FAMILY on CHRISTMAS, YOU SHOULD COME SPEND CHRISTMAS WITH MY FAMILY, REALLY, I INSIST —”
Hi. We don’t live in Hallmark movies; we live in the real world, where Christmas means different things to different people, and folks have shitty families, logistical and financial realities, personal preferences, and plenty of other reasons for deciding to spend Christmas alone, none of which are your business or your problem to solve. (Also, I’d think that as a follower of Christ, you would know that with God, we are never really alone.)
Anyway, if a friend or coworker tells you that they are spending Christmas alone, it’s perfectly nice to invite them to your Christmas celebration...but if they turn you down, or tell you they are looking forward to their solo plans, the best thing you can do is give them your number and say “in case you change your mind” and then let it fucking go. Unless they are planning to roast and eat a human baby on December 25 (holy infant, so tender and mild), other people’s holiday plans shouldn’t give you that many feelings.
Just...be cool, guys.
10. “Mmmkay, anything else I need to know?”
Yes, and this is a big one: maaaaaayyyybe don't check Instagram or Facebook for ~24-48 hours.
Even when I’m going through some real shit, I have an extremely high tolerance for other people’s joy and happiness on social media...but I’ve found that Christmas is the one day when it’s really, really hard. Annoyingly, these apps’ algorithms make it nearly impossible to avoid this content entirely, but I think that consuming it a few days after Christmas is still better than doing it on December 25, especially if this is your first time spending Christmas alone. In years/holidays past, when I didn’t heed this advice, I was ready to throw my phone/myself in a volcano by like...11 am. You know yourself better than I do, but it’s definitely something to be aware of.
11. “Are you sure being alone on Christmas isn’t the saddest thing ever?”
No, I’m not sure. Look, if you’re going to be alone on Christmas for shitty reasons (a breakup, a death, a ~complicated~ family situation), it might feel sad. I’m not going to pretend that my first Christmas alone didn’t hurt, but it was in the midst of a really tumultuous time in my life, so everything hurt. But that Christmas wasn’t sad because I was alone; it was sad because things were sad, and being around other people wouldn’t have fixed it. But acknowledging that I was suffering, and then choosing where exactly I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing when I experienced the Christmas version of that suffering reminded me that I had some agency and ultimately helped. (And will help me again this year.) We can’t always make things not bad. But we can sometimes make them a little less bad.
12. “Got it. Anything else I need to do to prepare myself for the big day?”
Nope! But before you go, here’s a little list with of all the things to buy/prepare/have in advance:
• Books/audiobooks/podcasts/TV shows/documentaries
• Candles and matches
• Clean and cozy pajamas
• A clean and tidy home and clean sheets on your bed (always a good choice!)
• Movie tickets
• Trash bags and cleaning supplies (in case you decide to go the purge route)
• A menu for the day and either a well-stocked fridge or a list of restaurants that will be open
• Tissues and toilet paper
• Sunset time (so you can perfectly time your walk!)
• A human who knows what’s up, and who is going to text or call you a couple of times to check in