When Aunt Sarah died, so did a longtime holiday tradition. No longer would I have a place to go for Christmas Eve in South Philly with the Sicilian-American clan in which I grew up.
Without any surviving close family, I looked forward to a lonely season in New York — until I realized how many other urban transplants there were. Why not be the Italian Mamarelle for those who couldn’t get back to the folks?
This year marks my seventh annual Christmas Eve bash, proving you can have happy holidays without family.
“Our closest friends are our chosen family,” observes Paul Siegel, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the State University of New York/Purchase.
Particularly in cities, he says, “connections ground us. So if you are unable to spend the holidays this year with family members, do whatever you can to create a sense of connectedness to others in your life.”
More and more people seem to be on their own these days. Census figures show that one-fourth of the nation’s households — 27.2 million of them — now consist of one person, compared to just 10 percent in 1950. For that matter, the average American has only two close friends in whom to confide — down from three in 1985, according to an authoritative sociological study released in June. Nearly a quarter have no confidant at all.
The holidays can be particularly hard on those who have suffered the death of loved ones, divorce, empty nests or relocation. There also are those who do have family but would rather not see them; for them too, it can be a lonely season.
So it’s been good to see 15 to 30 people at my Christmas gathering each year. And stragglers are more than welcome.
Co-workers appreciate having someplace to go and gratefully call it my “Orphan Christmas.” Neighbors are glad to get out of the house. Non-Christian friends have an excuse to party.
Sure, Christmas carols waft out of the stereo, but eventually Prince, Green Day, Talking Heads or the Oliver Nelson Sextet will take over. The perpetually burning yule log — an old New York tradition recently revived by a cable channel — burns on the TV screen. Who said my place didn’t come with a fireplace!?
Tradition is important in defining ourselves and our values, but so is adapting as circumstances change, says Purdue University cultural anthropologist Andrew Buckser.
“Holiday rituals are really a kind of play, and everyone is always rewriting the script,” he says. “Each of us is our own character, and we each have something we want to say.”
Re-thinking expectations — and letting go of the goal of a picture-perfect holiday — can relieve the pressure on those who find themselves without family, says another expert, Kansas State University professor Charlotte Shoup Olsen, who specializes in family issues.
“If there ever was a time to look beyond the box, this is it,” she says.
The key, she says, is keeping plans simple.
That’s what I do: buy plenty of booze and 6-foot hoagies; a monster pan of lasagna; antipasto; and various cheeses, olives and other noshes. Some people bring cookies and pastries.
Another option is potluck, says Lehigh University professor Nicola Tannenbaum, who studies the cultural significance of food and eating. She suggests serving “comfort foods, but what these are depends on the people involved, their ethnic backgrounds and their experiences.”
Potluck lets everybody bring what’s right for them.
Or you could invite people over to make soup, or anything that requires several pairs of hands.
“Actually, working together to prepare food is a way to draw in new people who may not have much in common beyond the fact that they have nowhere else to go,” Tannenbaum says.
On Christmas Eve, there isn’t the mammoth mandate to have fun — or the mournful introspection — that can make New Year’s Eve oppressive.
Which reminds me: I still miss getting to Philadelphia for the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day. There’s no substitute for that.