A growing number of people are talking about, and owning, their decision to withdraw from the holiday frenzy. In addition to avoiding the anxiety, stress and financial strain of Christmas, some people find the pressure to “be merry and happy” difficult.
Ishea Brown grew up in a huge family that celebrated Christmas like nobody’s business.
Her mother, who is one of 15 siblings, and her father, who is one of 12, love having their home be their clan’s social center during the holidays, spending untold hours from Thanksgiving on running around, decorating, cooking, shopping and getting ready for the festive climax.
“Growing up, I had no choice but to be surrounded by all the people who were always at our house,” Brown said. But when the 32-year-old Capitol Hill resident moved out of her parents’ home about 10 years ago, she realized she could opt out and spend Thanksgiving and Christmas alone.
“It’s honestly so awesome,” said the Meredith Corp. senior campaign manager. “I could cook what I wanted when I wanted. I could stay in my pajamas all day. I could nap on the couch with my dog. I didn’t feel obligated to go anywhere or do anything. It was so freeing.”
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Brown is among a growing number of people who are talking about, and owning, their decision to withdraw from the holiday frenzy. In addition to avoiding the anxiety, stress and financial strain of Christmas, some people find the pressure to “be merry and happy” difficult. Others find that spending holidays alone, with pets or select friends, is a healthy alternative to time with dysfunctional, abusive or alcoholic family members, said Dr. Nancy Goldov, public education coordinator for the Washington State Psychological Association. Goldov said another possible trigger for some people this year is the highly fraught political situation that’s polarized some families.
“Some people may choose to set aside the same days to stay home alone that others set aside to be with others as a way to circumvent experiences of conflict during the holidays,” Goldov said. “It’s important to recognize that taking care of yourself is your first priority and not taking care of yourself isn’t an option.”
That annual reprieve is something that Jim Thomsen looks forward to all year long.
As a freelance editor who also cares for disabled relatives, Thomsen is used to being on call most of the time.
“I love being a part of a community and a society,” he said. “But this is my day to pull the curtains on the rest of the world and be good to myself.”
Thomsen, who is self-employed, says Christmas is the lone day he gives himself permission to do nothing. “If I want to read three books, I’m going to do that. If I want to go for a five-hour walk, I’m going to do that. If I want to do nothing but heat up spaghetti, that’s what I’m going to do. I give myself permission not to be part of society for one day, and it’s a great luxury.”
For Dena Landon, an accountant and writer from Seattle who now lives in St. Paul, Minn., it was a few “pity invites” she endured while attending college in Massachusetts that led her to her tradition of solo holidays.
In an essay published in The Washington Post, Landon described being at the house of a school friend during her first Thanksgiving away from home and finding herself in the middle of battling strangers after her friend declared she was changing her major. The second year, she was seated next to a young man who made an awkward play for her while explaining that a would-be pastor needed a wife to land a job.
“I found myself thinking, ‘Man, I would rather be eating stale pizza.’ ”
The third year, she said no to a well-intentioned friend’s overture and her “introvert’s tradition was born,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I spent three or four days by myself, and it was really nice. I went for walks, sat on Newbury Street (in Boston) and watched people, drank cider and read books for fun, which I never got to do during school.”
After Landon’s piece appeared last month, a number of people contacted her to thank her.
“A lot of people retweeted it and said ‘Oh my God, you get me,’ ” she said. “Others said, ‘I wish I could do this, but I told someone I would do this thing and now I have three different things to do and I have to bake cookies.’ They’re called social obligations for a reason.”
Landon now has a 5-year-old-son and an ex-husband with whom she shares custody during the holidays. She loves the years she gets with her child, but she also still revels in her solitary ones.
“We have a tradition in our family to always buy a new book on Christmas, so I dropped my son off at Starbucks to meet his dad, got a latte, hauled out my new book and sat and read. It was wonderful,” she said of the years she doesn’t have her son.
Brown, who recently started dating a person whose family is into Christmas in a big way, said that often the toughest element of excising herself from the clamor is managing other people’s expectations and disappointment.
“You have to ask yourself if you are showing up for yourself or to please other people,” Brown said. “And if it’s for other people, that’s a problem. I had to explain to my boyfriend that I love him and adore him and don’t want to offend him, but doing something on Christmas Eve and Christmas and the day after is too much for me.”
According to Goldov, people who want to enjoy holidays solo can expect “some family members and friends to feel disappointed or even rejected.”
First, she advises people to explain their wishes in a simple, relevant and uncomplicated way. Then recognize and acknowledge the disappointment loved ones feel and respond by joining with them in that sentiment.
“These moments of recognizing the disappointment of loved ones and sharing your regret that you can’t be there during the holidays can help maintain family connections, reassure and calm loved ones and promote connection and kindness,” she said.
She also suggested that people explain clearly to loved ones what they will be doing and how they will be experiencing goodwill.
“It can help them if they know that you will be walking around Green Lake or reading a favorite book,” she said.
If possible, people can arrange to make a phone call or send a holiday greeting through Facebook or another medium.
Once the holiday is over, loved ones will want to know how your holiday was and will want to hear that they are important to you, she said.
Sometimes a compromise is called for.
This year, Brown said, she will spend part of Christmas Day with her boyfriend’s family, but will not take part in the gift exchange. Next year, she is hoping to convince him that they should just take a vacation together and skip the whole thing.
“I love that he is trying to include me, and I respect his traditions, but I also have to make time for myself.”