Magazine

The people who choose to be alone at Christmas

  • 23 December 2014
  • From the section Magazine
Remote control and feet up in front of TV

Christmas Day is traditionally seen as an event to be spent around loved ones. But what about those who want to spend it alone, asks Ross Davies.

Some would say there is no more poignant festive moment than to hear of a Christmas spent alone.

Take last year's story of James Gray, the London-based Irish pensioner who placed an advert in the Irish Post in a bid to find someone to share the holiday with, having spent nine consecutive Christmases on his own.

Or the report earlier this year of an unnamed widow, who hired an entire Devon pub so as to host a Christmas lunch for herself and 50 strangers also expecting to spend the day alone.

Christmas can be a difficult time for many, especially in the face of ubiquitous reminders that it is the season to be jolly - not to mention the financial pressures that come with it.

Last December, the Samaritans are said to have received 244,000 calls from people suffering from depression and stress across Britain and Ireland.

Such statistics shouldn't be scoffed at. Likewise, the tale of James Gray serves as an apt reflection of the endemic loneliness suffered among the elderly.

But a Yuletide in one's own company isn't always quite as disheartening as it seems.

A few years ago, I spent the big day unaccompanied - albeit not quite by design. I had planned to be in New York with friends, until a Christmas Eve snowstorm led to a cancelled flight and scuppered plans.

Back home alone, the day passed by in an air of non-conformity - not wholly unpleasant. For once, the TV remote was unilaterally mine. There was no need to shave. The turkey dinner (never a favourite) was supplanted by a more preferable Indian takeaway.

When my flight for the US finally departed two days later, I was able to reflect on a tranquil holiday.

Of course, reasons for spending the festive season alone - or any day or event, for that matter - vary from person to person.

Since losing his partner two years ago, Rob Moore, a 48-year-old graphic designer, has chosen to spend his Christmases alone, and will do so again this year. While clearly not without its poignancy as a reminder of the loss of a loved one, he has found parts of the experience to be surprisingly cathartic.

"I must admit that spending time on my own - completely devoid of any feeling that I should be somewhere else over Christmas - is something I've found to be far more positive than I expected," he says.

"When I've told friends and family that I'll be spending Christmas alone, a couple of them have even been quite jealous."

Image caption A welcome change from turkey dinner...

Psychologist Dr Arthur Cassidy agrees that introversion for one day of the year needn't necessarily imply loneliness and social isolation.

"There is actually a liberty to being in one's own company, even if you are construed by others as being lonely," he explains. "Spending Christmas alone can certainly be liberating. We live in a world where we are expected to conform - not doing so can be an exciting phenomenon.

"Of course, it really depends on which part of the world you are in - culturally speaking. Here in the West, social solitude is still stigmatised. Instead, the cultural norm is to be connected on a day-to-day basis, especially on Christmas Day."

Monika Pallenberg, a 25-year-old student, will also be spending this Christmas Day alone of her own free will. A self-identified pantheist, she feels uncomfortable celebrating one of the most important events in the Christian calendar, and instead views it like any other public holiday.

"I really don't like the religious aspect being forced upon me by some people," she says. "So I don't feel obligated to spend the day with my family - who live abroad - or anyone else for that matter. It's no big deal and I don't feel like I am disappointing anybody."

Alone at Christmas...

Image caption Scrooge's plans for Christmas alone were continually thwarted
  • Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
  • Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), hero of Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
  • King John, in AA Milne's poem, "King John's Christmas" - "King John was not a good man,/ He had his little ways./ And sometimes no one spoke to him/ For days and days and days."

Nonetheless, she admits that some of her peers find it hard to understand her decision. "When I explain that I am planning to spend Christmas alone, my friends will inevitably invite me around theirs. It's the same with my neighbours. I know they are only being nice, and I appreciate that, but I'd rather relax on my own."

According to Diane Ofili, 30, a freelance writer who has spent several Christmases alone, the stigma of shunning company is still evident.

"I try to be as vague as possible when people ask me what I'm doing for Christmas," she says. "From past experience, when I have said I plan to be alone, some people have actually been quite hostile about it. But, quite frankly, I see that as their problem, and not mine."

Image caption "Yuletide in one's own company isn't as disheartening as it seems."

Trite as it sounds, Christmas is what you make it. For every individual filled with the ardour of spending the day with family and loved ones, there is someone who might have no inclination or responsibility - be it familial or religious - to do "something special".

"I've never had a wide social circle. I am introverted, quite withdrawn, always valued my privacy and autonomy," says Ofili.

"In terms of family, I've never been close to my own family - I've been estranged from them a couple of times. In the past, I've spent a couple of Christmases with my aunt and cousins, but most of my family is in Africa.

Moore received offers from friends and family at first, after his partner died, but they now accept he is happy in his own company. "Because they see I have established an alternative routine, and am unlikely to accept their invitations, less people ask now."

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.