You never get more invites for Christmas than when you announce you are spending it alone. Couples whose weddings I hadn’t been invited to; fretting mums-of-friends I had never met before; an Instagram mutual I had spoken to exactly once at a party: as I stormed through the December of 2018 telling everyone my Christmas plans, paragraph-long texts began to come in – from close friends to people whose numbers I didn’t even have saved – offering me a seat at their table, a serving of turkey and a supermarket-fresh pyjama set to unwrap on the day.
“Although socialisation underpins the very nature of society, and I am glad forever for it, it does mean we mistake solitude for loneliness,” I would reply. Either that or: “Thanks.”
There were various reasons I wanted to spend Christmas Day alone, and I could list you the fun and goofy ones – most families serve turkey on the day, and I find it uninspiring; the deranged temperatures other people heat their houses to; I wanted to eat an entire tub of Quality Street by myself without anyone looking at me and saying anything – but the reality was more complicated. Since my mum’s death five years before, when I was 25, following my dad’s when I was 15, I hadn’t had anywhere to go at Christmas. Or rather, I did, but it wasn’t my own home: I would be the lurking third wheel at other people’s Christmas Days, with other people’s wrong Christmas Day traditions, and other people’s Christmas Day invite lists.
No matter how hard the people who so generously accommodated me would try, it just did not feel like Christmas any more: it is hard to relax into a day of magic and celebration when you don’t know the house rules on wearing shoes indoors, for instance, or whether the snoring man asleep on the sofa who came dangerously close to saying an archaic slur over dinner was an uncle or a grandparent (a step-grandparent? Is that a thing?). Christmas is special because it is a series of traditions, both broad and personal, layered over and over again, each one invoking years and treasured memories past. And it is hard to fully commit to that when someone is, for instance, “opening just one present at midnight on Christmas Eve”, which I know a lot of people do but I disagree with politically.
So it was just me, then. The first problem I came up against was: people who regularly host Christmas have a box of trinkets and decorations and tinsel in the attic, and I didn’t have any of that, because I was renting a place that had absolutely no viable cupboards, and my flatmate James and I had spent all December drinking supermarket gift sets of beer together and playing PS4 instead of, say, buying a tree. So I woke up on the 24th to one of the most miserable homes in the entire country. With about seven usable hours before the shops closed to get this place festive, I wrestled the corner shop’s last tree up a flight of stairs – on my own, since by now James had left for the family home in Wales – threw a few strings of lametta over it, then plucked as many needles out of the back of my jacket as I could before dashing out again, my mouth already dry from not talking.
I queued at the butcher’s and bought an organic chicken (would it taste better? I did not know); stopped by the off-licence for fancy beers and the requisite bottle of Bailey’s; and bought too much food and orange juice from a supermarket to try and emulate my mum’s traditional “heaving fridge”. By the time the evening came around, I was exhausted, significantly poorer, and googling: “Roast chicken + how long?” Then I settled in for my traditional Chinese takeaway.
I don’t know when my mum and I started having Chinese takeaways on Christmas Eve, but we did, and nowhere else I had been in the intervening years agreed that that was normal. There were other traditions I don’t remember the source of but was keen to enforce during my one real chance at festive dictatorship: waking up lazily around 10am and starting the day with a cafetiere and some croissants; getting dressed in a box-fresh tracksuit to laze around in for the rest of the day; opening my presents around midday and putting all the wrapping paper immediately into a binbag, as if it would somehow escape and cause havoc if I didn’t dispose of it instantly.
When I had opened all my gifts (a mix: a few from friends, a few packages of online orders I’d got for myself and not unwrapped yet), I got up, made an entire roast dinner, then chained three films back-to-back while getting quietly Bailey’s drunk and eating one-and-a-half Chocolate Oranges. Christmas on my own terms was not exactly enlightening, but it helped get something out of my system.
By Boxing Day, I was ready to interact with other people again – a friend and I went to watch a football match, then back to my flat to eat chicken pie in front of a limply decorated tree.
The year after, I went elsewhere for Christmas. I watched as someone else’s family did weird wrong things – opening presents at the same time, for instance, instead of taking turns around the room; not placing any importance on stockings, which everyone knows are the best bit; thinking cauliflower cheese is an appropriate accompaniment to a roast – but smiled and let it pass over me. Christmas is allowed to change, I realised. Having one last throwback holiday helped me accept that.