How To Celebrate The Holidays Without Your Family
Home is where the heart is.
Recently, I was out to dinner with some new friends and everyone started talking about their holiday plans with their families. One person was going home to Seattle, another was going back to Florida, and another was going back to New York. I remained silent. Everyone turned to look at me. “What about you? Where are you going for the holidays?” they asked. “Here,” I said. “But you don’t have family here,” one of them replied. “I know.” I realized that, in the post-lockdown world, spending the holidays without family seemed unusual (unheard of, even) to some.
But, to be honest, I can’t remember the last time I spent the holidays — like Thanksgiving or Christmas — among blood relatives. Even before Zooming with loved ones became a thing during the height of COVID-19, I often celebrated with family from a distance, if at all. My father died when I was a child, and my mother and I are not close. The rest of my family is dispersed all over America and Europe, so getting together is not as easy as jumping in the car and driving across town.
Plus, the holiday matriarch of the family — my grandmother — is no longer around. For so long she’d been my primary parental figure and, when she was alive, she’d spearhead the holidays, particularly Christmas, back in my hometown of Chicago. We’d go shopping for a tree and decorate it with all these ornaments my grandma had made when she was a kid, in the 1920s, dust off her collection of tea cups (with matching saucers) and polish the silverware. And then we’d spend Christmas Eve preparing all these traditional Polish foods for anywhere from 20 to 40 people, plus any random friends who had no place to go.
Even when my grandma moved into a nursing home, I’d transform her room into a winter wonderland, complete with a real miniature tree full of her homemade Christmas ornaments. I couldn’t cook nearly as well as she had, so I’d get a Christmas Eve feast from her favorite Polish restaurant and watch her eat it as the lights from the tree illuminated her face.
I’d make it a point to spend every Christmas with her. But when she passed away in 2016, I stopped going back. It just wasn’t the same.
They say “home is where the heart is” — and I could not agree more. These days, I consider many friends to be my unofficial family. So when it comes to holidays, I automatically assume I will see this group of friends or that one and don’t even think about going “home” to see my actual family.
In past years, like when I was living abroad, my friends weren’t as close by and I’d make the most of whatever holiday it happened to be. One time, I tried surprising some family in Chicago for Thanksgiving — and both my plane and train got delayed. So I ended up having an impromptu Thankgiving with two women I met on the train platform. We didn’t have turkey, but we had each other (and random sandwiches we’d all gotten from a train station kiosk, the only food around). This was years ago and we are still in touch today!
The moral of my story here is that holidays without family don’t have to be so sad and lonely. In fact, I think they can be wonderful and depend on what you make of them. Whatever the reason may be — you and your family had a falling out, they live too far away, you have to work, you can’t afford to travel home — there are plenty of ways to still have a joyful holiday season even without your loved ones around.
So if you are wondering how to celebrate the season solo you’ve come to the right place. Here are some ideas on how to make the holidays merry and bright.
If you do a quick Google search, or make a few calls, you can find many places (shelters, food kitchens, non-profits) who could use volunteers, especially around the holidays. Whether you feed the homeless Christmas dinner, or visit people at a hospital or nursing home, somebody needs you, somewhere.
Research, too, has proven that volunteering is good for your mental health and leads to greater happiness. It can up your mood and strengthen your relationships with others. Plus, you can make new friends, whether they’re fellow volunteers or the people you’re helping.
Get Together With Friends
With holidays like “Friendsgiving” becoming increasingly popular, it seems like other people don’t always go home for the holidays either. If none of your friends are hosting a holiday event, why don’t you?
One year for Christmas, it seemed like several of my friends were flying solo for the holidays. One was going through a divorce and suddenly had nowhere to go, another had lost his job and couldn’t afford to fly home, and a handful of others were all in town, as well. One decided to host a late-night Christmas Eve potluck, followed by walking to midnight mass from his place. So even though we were all technically “alone,” it didn’t feel that way at all.
Host A Virtual Celebration
Since we’ve all became pros with online technology the last few years, a virtual party is definitley still an option this year. A friend of mine did this in recent years and instructed everyone to wear matching pajamas. Another pal hosted a virtual New Year’s Eve party and people could drop by the chat room anytime from 7 p.m. to midnight. People dressed up as though they were out at an actual New Year’s Eve party, and it was great. Plus, when you have a virtual event, you can end the “party” anytime you’d like — and you don’t have to worry about clean-up.
Go To A Meetup Event
Meetup is a free website and app that’s all about community and meeting new people through various activities, whether it’s something you already like to do (like play kickball) or something you’d like to do (like practice conversational Spanish). You just type in your location (i.e., “Los Angeles”) and what you’re interested in doing (i.e., “dinner”) — and then Meetup will show you all the events related to your search, whether you’re looking for something to do tonight, this week, or on a particular day.
You can find a Meetup community or event for anything — people to hike with, eat with, travel with … and, yep, spend the holidays with. When I was living abroad, I suddenly found myself in Warsaw, Poland on my birthday (which is like a holiday, right?) — with no plans. It was also around Thanksgiving, which is not celebrated abroad, of course. I didn’t know anyone in Warsaw yet, so I created an Expats group in the Warsaw Meetup group and added a last-minute event. A few hours later, 25 new friends and I celebrated my birthday by going to the city’s Christmas market. (And, yes, I am still in touch with many of them today!)
Just the other day, I looked up Meetup events in L.A. and found several centered around holidays, like Christmas dinners and New Year’s Eve parties. While some people may find it intimidating to attend an event full of strangers, the good thing is, everyone’s in the same boat — they don’t know anyone either! So even though you’ll start off as strangers, you’ll often leave the event as friends.
Spend The Day Alone
There is nothing — I repeat, nothing — wrong with spending the holidays alone. Maybe you are with other people all the time and can finally have a day to yourself to decompress — and it just so happens to be on a holiday.
I have a friend who goes on a trip alone each year over Hanukkah, as he says it’s the one time of year he feels no external pressure. One year, he went hiking and camping at national parks in Utah. Another year, he went to find solitude in Iceland (which is pretty remote in certain parts). He always bring a little menorah along and celebrates Hanukkah in his own way.
This past Thanksgiving, another friend of mine decided to spend the day alone, as it was the first time in a long time that he was able to. As an introvert, he really wanted this time to himself, he said. Mid-divorce, his kids were with their mom and her family. So my friend made himself his favorite meal (not turkey), watched football all night, and said it was exactly what he needed.
So whether you create a new holiday ritual or add some family traditions to your solo holiday, you can make up the rules as you go along. You can pick up a pre-made holiday meal at a gourmet grocery store or try making a ham or turkey on your own for the first time while you watch all the latest Hallmark holiday movies.
The thing is, there’s no “wrong” way to spend the holidays. As soon as you let go of that belief, it alleviates any pressure you may feel. It’s almost akin to staying home on a Friday or Saturday night — the first time you do, you may feel pressure to be out (FOMO is real!). But once you let that go, you’ll probably like being in after a hectic week, and even embrace it.
That’s exactly how it can be to spend the holidays without family, too. Even though “home is where the heart is” may sound cliché, it couldn’t be more true.