Given the season of excess that is Christmas, the event seems strangely downsized lately. Many of us bumped Christ, whose birthday the event celebrates, a long time ago in favour of a definition of Christmas that’s less about God and more about making merry with family.
Now that tradition might also be on the wane with some ditching the family bash, in case they’re tempted to bash up the relos, in favour of a get-together with like-minded people they actually like. Then there are those, like Young Jean Lee, who just want to spend Christmas alone.
Lee, a subversive New York playwright, last year released her own carol singing the praises of a solo Christmas. In it, she enjoys her festive season minus disappointed family, egocentric friends, impossible standards, tension and yelling.
Opting instead for a bowl of cereal and cable TV, Lee sings, quite upbeat:
I’m grateful I’m spending Christmas alone
No calls for me on the phone
I’ll do what I want all day long
Lee’s acidic, often bitingly funny attack on Christmas offers welcome respite from the overly gooey portrait of Yuletide we often get, full of cutesy kids and perfect families. And while Lee’s song wasn’t exactly a hit, even though she’s alone at Christmas, she’s not alone in wanting it that way.
Other voices bemoaning the horror of spending Christmas with people you’d rather not have become louder in recent years. Journalist Leah Borromeo writes that “once you’re over 30 and fancy yourself an independent human being it’s time to cut the apron strings” as she finds there’s “something backward” about going home to your folks or worse, your partner’s.
That’s probably even more the case when, as recounted by Borromeo, a member of your partner’s family puts their politically incorrect foot in it with their innocent but presumptuous query ‘Do your people celebrate Christmas?’
As a result, Borromeo says she’s determined to spend future Christmases with her own (presumably not ignorant) friends, those “to whom I don’t have to explain myself.” Her advice to others, as she licks her wounds from previous years? “Forge your own traditions,” she urges, “and encourage everyone else to do the same.”
Caroline Sullivan, another writer, has done exactly that. She’s spent Christmas alone for years and developed her own rituals for the day: cooking herself a “proper” lunch (no cereal, in other words), then opening presents and assuring friends who call that she’s still alive and well.
Sullivan isn’t exactly against Christmas spent with others so much as she relishes her solitude. She makes it sound quite civilised, really. Unlike Lee, Sullivan’s no wounded cynic, and neither is she a Bridget Jones-type moaning about being alone. Rather, Sullivan looks forward to her yearly love-in with herself, saying she anticipates it “like other people look forward to a week in the Maldives.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of Christmas alone or with a select group of people with whom you can pioneer your own traditions and exorcise the ghosts of Christmases past—especially if in your experience the combination of flowing wine, forced togetherness and latent rage has too often sparked an epic family fracas.
But a lone Christmas has an inescapable whiff of ‘bah humbug’ about it—which is to say, it can’t help but seem grouchy and/or self-satisfied. It churlishly flouts the popular understanding of Christmas as a time spent with friends and family (and probably feels like a kick in the face to those who don’t have the option of refusing company at Christmastime).
These blessings of the season are best enjoyed in company because they promise to lift us out of our chronic self-concern.
Granted, in an ideal world people wouldn’t reserve a time of year to be especially kind to others. But for now at least, Christmas retains a unique power to prod us in that direction, even in a post-Christian culture.
Perhaps that’s because the traditional Christmas story of God entering the world to serve (and ultimately save) humankind lingers on in people’s understanding of Christmas as a time to look to the needs of others.
That account of the original Christmas event emphasises how not alone we are in a world that often gives us good reason to believe otherwise. It’s probably why the majority of Westerners who still celebrate Christmas will do so in company, even if they don’t buy that strange tale of the baby in the manger.
Time with others doesn’t necessarily guarantee fun for all but inconveniences, awkward silences, unpleasantries and the like; all of which cast a different light on the season’s customary blessings of peace, generosity, good will and cheer. Maybe these well wishes aren’t just festive lip service but frank reminders of what we desperately need.
These blessings of the season are best enjoyed (or is that endured?) in company because they promise to lift us out of our chronic self-concern. If we let them do their work on us, we can get called out of ourselves and, better yet, invite others in. That may be the closest we’ll get to a Christmas miracle this year. That, and maybe cereal for two at Young Jean Lee’s.
Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.
This article orginally appeared at The Punch.