There's No Place Like Alone for the Holidays
Absurdly it's taboo to say this, but here goes: I absolutely love being alone on holidays.
To be fair, I spent Thanksgiving 2004 nursing my terminally ill father, who died three days later. There was really nowhere to go but up from there. My mother and I have been estranged for eight years, and my little sister (stuck in California this year) has sporadically lived abroad or split her holidays between us. On several occasions over the last decade, I've joined Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations with adopted families, but otherwise I've been by myself bellied up to bars, on my couch, or maintaining someone's farm.
Suffice it to say, the only constant this time of year is me, myself, and I. And that fact has fast-forwarded me into my authenticity. Life-changing realizations and experiences have come out of seasonal aloneness—farmsitting, for one, plus many of the newfound traditions I'm sharing with you below. We all have untapped reserves of strength, curiosity, and joy—in this, the year of wrenching COVID-induced separations, it's time to locate and siphon them.
Consider this: what if being alone for the holidays doesn’t have to be sad? Could you perhaps even make space for the fact that it won’t be?
There will be a lot of narratives—advertising, fictional, and projected—that underscore a certain warm and fuzzy, picture-perfect message of holiday togetherness, and I encourage you to rage against them. How? By daring to be perfectly content on your own. Less dejected Hallmark movie protagonist in need of rescuing, more Kevin McCallister and his lovely cheese pizza. Try to jettison the fantasy ideal ingrained in us about how the holidays should play out and realize there are plusses and minuses to both the alone and together scenarios.
Here's what I've come to learn and love about spending this time of year on my own. I hope these ideas for solo celebration make you feel supported and more accepting (dare I say excited?) about having an unorthodox holiday.
Where this year is concerned, COVID protocols are your go-to response to frustrated loved ones. "I don't feel comfortable gathering at this time" should do it. If not, send them CDC holiday guidelines. If they refuse to listen to official channels, I find positioning things from my own culpability works. "I'd never forgive myself if I got you sick" is a pretty rock-solid response. If your family loves you unconditionally, they'll respect your feelings even if they don't agree with them. And if the guilting continues, as uncomfortable as it will be, you'll have to draw some boundaries. You're a grown adult who gets to decide how you navigate this already fraught time of year, and being with—or lectured by—people who make you feel bad is a dealbreaker. It's a hard lesson to learn, but sometimes you have to parent your parents. Show them what it's like to have healthy boundaries, agency, and self-respect.
DECORATE (OR DON'T)
There've been years when I've set up a Christmas tree and years where I haven't. I never pressure myself to decorate, I just do it if I feel like it. Sometimes I just string lights on a mantel or around potted house plants. Other times I make displays out of holiday cards I receive. Last year, I had a blast finding a local Christmas tree farm and sourcing vintage ornaments, so holiday decor became a fun project and the tree was a sweet little self-designed beacon of soft light in my living room. If the idea of decorating is daunting to you, skip it. But if you can find a way into it that both empowers and comforts you, it's worthwhile. Holiday decorations don't just need to be displayed for the assessment and enjoyment of others, they can also bring back happy memories or create a setting that makes you feel warm and content.
My love of craft projects is something relatively new, and I know it'll serve me well for many solo holiday seasons to come. Using your hands in any creative way is incredibly meditative and makes the time fly. I've experimented with watercolor paints using various online tutorials—I really love Sarah Andrews' IGTV tutorial series. My first palette came from Walmart—no need to get fancy! I also have an ongoing pressed flower project where I chart what grows around the farm by month—here's a Reels video I made of one page in my scrapbook. Pop outside and grab anything interesting that's growing near your house—grasses, leaves, flowers—place them in a folded piece of regular white printer paper (I've found that parchment doesn't absorb enough moisture and causes mold), and put the paper inside the pages of a book. Stack books on top to weigh it down, and leave it for 4-5 weeks. Once your cuttings are dry, you can arrange them in a pretty scrapbook using glue or washi tape (I'm obsessed with everything at Choosing Keeping), or put them in a gorgeous floating frame (this is my favorite Etsy shop for those). I also started making cyanotype prints of plants and flowers using sun-sensitive paper—they make great gifts and keepsakes! This is my favorite cyanotype paper. If all else fails, get some writing supplies (pretty stamps and stickers, colored ink pens, beautiful blank cards) and write letters to people you love—it's a great way to spark gratitude.
CREATE AUDIO AMBIANCE
Miss the din of familiar voices and cooking sounds that usually surround you during the holidays? Put on your favorite Spotify playlist (I love anything classical) or download a radio app and find your local station. I really cannot recommend talk radio enough, even just at a super-low level—the muffled intonations of people speaking in another room are fabulously soothing. The first time I ever farmsat, I was scared and alone in a massive 1830s farmhouse in the middle of the woods, so I kept NPR (specifically: A Prairie Home Companion) on all day, every day. There's also a slew of amazing YouTube channels (Calmed by Nature is particularly popular) where you can find every conceivable type of ambient noise—Cozy Cabin! Fall Coffee Shop! Rainy Night! I also loved building fires in the upstate farmhouse I looked after—my cottage's fireplace is inoperable, so sometimes I play a crackling fireplace video on my laptop or TV.
QUEUE UP THE ENTERTAINMENT
Curate your own film festival—look up titles based on genre and make a list of everything that interests you. This also works with actors you love, TV shows, or a combination thereof (I once spent a whole Christmas Day watching food-themed movies and shows, for example). Or just put on your favorite comforting films and shows and play 'em on a loop (the Canadian Anne of Green Gables miniseries and Gilmore Girls are mine). I've also become obsessed with this homesteading YouTube channel by a Chinese blogger named Li Ziqui—these days it's my main source of dopamine. If you want to go analog, line up a book—new or old—to read for the day. The first time I farmsat, I pre-planned for the week alone in a strange place by purchasing three L.M. Montgomery novels I'd never read, knowing they'd comfort me. Take advantage of the fact that so many museums have had to go virtual at this time and go on a tour—Jane Austen's house offers virtual visits, as does The Museum of Natural History. Hop on Instagram and fall down a rabbit hole of escapist accounts—some of my recent favorites are:
Oh, and naps count as entertainment, too! Just sayin'.
STAY (VIRTUALLY) SOCIAL
Many of us are in the same situation this year, so check in with your online community of choice if you're feeling lonely—you just may find strength in socially distanced numbers. Take advantage of the technology available to you—set up FaceTime or Zoom to throw a virtual cocktail hour with friends, or arrange to pre-buy all the same ingredients as your family and have a cook-along (hey, you may finally learn nonna's secret sauce recipe). My friend Jon and I have a standing Zoom movie date every Friday—we usually cook dinner together, catch up, and then pick something to co-watch. We'll be doing that the Fridays after Thanksgiving and Christmas. Crazy as it sounds, I see more of Jon now than I did when I lived in the same city as him. Once you open yourself to the many avenues of alternative togetherness, you may be surprised by how enriching they are.
DESIGN YOUR DINE
Holiday food started out as a bit of a sore spot—I craved traditional dishes, but they didn't taste the same when not enjoyed with others. I started by making full meals of side dishes I love—mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing. Then one year, I spent the whole day eating my way through a pumpkin, apple, and pecan pie and drinking red wine—that was where my menu started and ended. I think that's when it clicked that I didn't have to adhere to customary guidelines while on my own. There've been years when I've bought my favorite take-out the day before and made a buffet to graze on, and other years when I've played with themes (dips all day! Flatbreads for every meal!) Just eat whatever's comforting and plan ahead as much as you can if every restaurant and grocery store in your town will be closed. If you're lucky enough to have family who bakes, ask them to pre-ship you some of their goodies so you can enjoy a taste of home. Or have fun looking up recipes and making your own menu! Here are some go-to recipes I keep bookmarked on my phone:
Not a recipe, but if you need a little supplemental mood support, Metagenics SeroSyn has been an absolute miracle for me.
WET YOUR WHISTLE
If you're feeling creative, make a real occasion of it by mixing a special cocktail or mocktail to sip throughout the day (there's no 5:00 pm rule on holidays, y'all). Or just pour your favorite wine/cider/hot chocolate into a ridiculously opulent glass (I have a thing for vintage coupe glasses from ABC Carpet & Home) that you can swing around theatrically as you swagger through your house in your PJs (solo holidays = no hard pants, I don't make the rules). I once spent a full Thanksgiving Day drinking whiskey-spiked cider out of a metal chalice I won at a bar Oscar party. This is the energy I always aim to bring.
Nature is the great equalizer—there are no holidays in the natural world, it's always business as usual. So no matter where you live, take a walk to someplace green (yes, going barefoot in the grass of your yard counts!) Pay attention to the sounds of birds and the wind, look for shapes in the clouds, close your eyes and try to chart all the different scents in the air. Take comfort from the fact that everything around you is inexorably pulsing along to its own internal clock regardless of what day it is. While living in Brooklyn, I was a heat-seeking missile for any green space—an overgrown abandoned lot, a community garden, a neighbor's front stoop potted plant display. Give yourself a fun assignment if you must—I love looking up local history and then walking past the locations.
All this said, give yourself permission to feel how you feel. If you try to make the day cheerful but you're still sad, or if you're oddly relieved or excited or empty or a kaleidoscopic combination of churning emotions—it's all okay. There is no map for traversing aloneness—the only requirement is that you be fiercely, relentlessly kind to yourself throughout the journey.