Being alone for the holidays: even the idea carries with it an outsize fear of being considered pathetic. So the thinking goes, even a horrible Thanksgiving with relatives you hate is better than having nowhere to go. The stigma is so significant that many won’t admit they don’t have plans. (Case in point: A number of sources wouldn’t speak to me on the record or use their full names for this story.)
But it doesn’t have to be this way. People choose to spend time alone for a variety of reasons: work, cost, or complex family dynamics, to name a few. The alternative of doing something solo can be intimidating. But it can also be immensely freeing — as long as you do it right.
How do you approach a holiday alone?
Rachel Stanton, trauma therapist and founder of Counseling in Boston LLC, says the holidays aren’t necessarily the simple celebrations of joy they’re made out to be. “I think holidays bring up family and childhood. It’s a touchstone: this holiday reminds me of past holidays,” she says. “I think bad things often happen on holidays — the great big family fight of 2010, for example. Every time that holiday comes around, it’s a reminder of that fight.”
“Depending on the situation, it’s important to remember that a holiday is just a regular day,” she adds. “There’s a stereotype that holidays are hard because other people are happy, which can remind people of their own unhappiness. That's really common, pressure around being happy.”
So the first step is to understand your own background and let yourself off the hook. No matter how you spend the time, focus on the decision to prioritize your well-being.
For executive assistant and writer Helene Utterback, a plane ticket to see family in Illinois can cost $600 during the holidays. She’s chosen to spend the past several holidays alone or with friends, then visited her family in the spring. “No one’s trying to prep a meal. No one’s scrambling to buy gifts. You can actually hang out with the people you don’t see that often,” she says.
Even though she loves spending holidays alone, she does sometimes experience stigma — the misconception that she must be utterly miserable. “It’s mostly friends who are concerned because they know being alone on an important day can feel sad. Give them a 15-minute call on the holiday to let them know you’re OK,” she says.
Stay active with a favorite activity
A simple search might reveal that your favorite restaurant is open, even doing something special for the occasion. Boston Market will make you a full Thanksgiving meal. Rochambeau offers pre-ordered and to-go pecan, apple, and pumpkin pies, including through noon on Thanksgiving.
Sonsie, a Back Bay favorite, especially for local professionals, is open on Thanksgiving and is a good fit for people who have to work that day. Up to 250 patrons came on Thanksgiving last year, and 5 percent to 10 percent of them were solo. “With Sonsie being around for so many years as a comfortable meeting place for people, it seems like it should be open on Thanksgiving,” says Emily Burke, social media and digital marketing manager of Lyons Group.
Lots of Boston hotels are cheap if you want a change of scenery. Laugh Boston has shows Wednesday and Friday. “The Nutcracker” starts Friday. The Celtics play Wednesday, and there’s Thanksgiving Eve at the Garden. Most malls are open on Thanksgiving, not to mention Black Friday. Little Brothers–Friends of the Elderly always needs volunteers to visit seniors who might be alone on Thanksgiving. Boston’s subreddit offers ideas and possible Friendsgiving options.
Until she moved to New York with her partner this year, Utterback stayed busy by traveling the city to catsit for friends. "They'll sit on your lap and cuddle while you knit and watch Netflix together," she explains.
People can also spend time doing a project they haven’t had time for — scrapbooking, DIY — or reaching out to a long-lost friend. Self-care can be communal, Stanton explains.
Just plan ahead so the day doesn’t feel empty. “Either do things one might normally do — get up, shower, watch TV — or something really pleasurable,” she says. Put more bluntly, "It’s so you don’t wake up and say, ‘All I have to eat in my house is ramen and every store is closed,’ ” says Utterback.
Accept, and even embrace, the surrealness
Lillie Marshall, teacher and travel blogger, had embraced solo holidays in the United States and abroad. She and her husband have Jewish mothers but celebrate Christmas on their fathers’ side; when her husband needed to travel for Christmas in 2014, she assumed it wouldn’t be that big a deal for her, despite having cultural expectations of celebration.
But on the day, she felt the need to connect, and walking around Jamaica Plain was lonelier than expected. “I remember wandering Centre Street and seeing packs of people cavorting together. I did feel a little lonely with my baby, who was being fussy,” she says. She ducked into one of the few open places, Indian restaurant Bukhara, and saw a few others sitting alone. "I got this feeling, ‘OK, there are other people who do this, too.’ ”
So understand that it’s not going to be a “normal” day. Places will be closed. People will be celebrating around you. But in Marshall’s case, she felt proud for challenging herself and the convention. The feelings, including loneliness, helped her realize that being with family for the holidays is a choice she makes deliberately.
"It's interesting how down the holidays can make people feel, and yet we keep, like robots, doing things that make us feel bad because that's what we’re ‘supposed’ to do. There are other ways. I think it's worth it to try some of these alternatives at least once. Trying them brings deep clarity about our own power."
Besides, if you try a solo holiday and it’s not for you, now you know.
Make sure to take time for yourself
No matter what, the time away from all those alerts, e-mails, and texts can be a profoundly good thing for your resting mind. Resolutions don’t just have to be for New Year’s — a time of rest is the perfect moment to think about life changes.
“I think one of the best forms of self-care is self-reflection. You can use that time to just reflect, like journaling, meditation, hiking,” says Stanton. “Spending some time to think about, ‘Where am I at in my life right now? Where do I want to be? Is there anything in my routine I want to change?’ And then if there’s any kind of action, even if it’s just Googling a neighborhood yoga class, doing legwork to make life changes that can be hard when life’s actually happening.”