For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been a fan of Christmas and have always faced the festive season with a nagging feeling of trepidation and gloom.
Whilst the idea of spending a few jolly days in the company of friends and family sounds idyllic in theory, all too often the reality is that the season of goodwill is ruined by the excruciating stress of the build up to the big day.
I find it unbearably depressing that department stores across the country often start pushing Christmas as early as August. I loathe the dreaded countdown with the focus on exactly how many shopping days we have left, and the fact that we’re told – constantly – that doing your festive buying early is the ‘only way’ to deal with financialconstraints.
By the time we get to mid-November I’m usually physically and emotionally exhausted. Whilst it’s always lovely to meet up with friends, I find the enforced jollity and endless boozy social gatherings – with the obligatory mince pies and lashings of fizzy wine – tedious to the point where even hearing the strains of Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ for the umpteenth time can send me into a frazzled rage.
To me, at least, there’s nothing happy about the idea of spending December fretting over hunting down the latest must-have children’s toy, or frittering vast sums of money on stuffing supermarket shopping trolleys with fattening food and then facing a miserable January feeling impoverished and overweight for an entire month as a result.
Last December, the Samaritans received an average of 13,000 calls per day from people across the UK and Ireland who were struggling to cope with the overwhelming pressures of the festive season. I have always felt guiltily aware that while I’m pulling crackers with loved ones across the table and groaning in unison at rubbish jokes, many people are feeling desperately lonely – perhaps due to bereavement, illness or divorce – and are finding Christmas and its focus on family a sad reminder of what they’ve lost.
When faced with the prospect of spending last Christmas on my own, although I was a little apprehensive at first, I decided to do it anyway – telling myself that it didn’t have to be awful, and if I went about it in the right way it might actually be quite liberating.
I’m a single mother in my early forties whose daughter is 20 and has just started working in the leisure industry.
She leapt at the chance to spend December toiling at a five-star hotel in the Caribbean, and although inwardly the thought of us spending our first ever Christmas apart tugged at my heartstrings and made me weep, outwardly I encouraged her to go for it.
I was lucky enough to receive very kind invitations to go and spend yuletide with my mother and sister, plus several friends asked if I’d like to spend the day with them as well.
But after careful consideration I decided to spend Christmas Day alone – and approach it pretty much like I would any other lazy Sunday.
I realised that this solitary Christmas might actually turn out to be the first of many on my own so I tried hard to put in a bit of work in the weeks beforehand so I wouldn’t sit around on the 25th feeling miserable.
Whilst it’s traditionally a boozy time of year with a focus on calorie-laden food, I made a point of not drinking much and tried to work out most days – even if it was just half an hour doing an online workout, or walking in the fresh air.
Alcohol is a well known depressant and hangovers are bad enough without added reasons to feel sorry for yourself, but rather than avoid everyone completely I made sure that I had some days out planned with friends to look forward to in the days between Boxing Day and the New Year.
I also signed up with a charity that enlists secret Santas to buy small inexpensive gifts for financially disadvantaged kids in the US. I didn’t spend much, maybe £120, but they email you videos of the children opening their gifts on Christmas morning and I knew that a distraction and a reason to feel happy for others instead of bad for myself was key.
When I felt a few pangs of loneliness kick in mid-morning I called my mum, my daughter, my sister and a few friends and, feeling bolstered by a good long natter, I took my pug dog Pippin off for a long wet, windy walk – enjoying the countryside.
By lunchtime I was feeling great and friends were texting saying how envious they were that I was doing what I wanted while they were juggling giant sized turkeys and tipsy relatives.
Instead of bothering with anything resembling a turkey dinner I whipped up a bacon and egg sandwich for lunch and had a chocolate mousse for dessert.
In the afternoon I lit some scented candles and curled up on the sofa to get stuck into a good book that I’d been saving for a day when I wouldn’t be interrupted by a string of work emails and telephone calls.
In the evening I had veggie soup and watched a film – relishing having the TV remote control to myself for once.
After years of spending Christmas Day looking after other people, it actually felt decadent to have some pure, undiluted ‘me time’.
I know I’ll be spending Christmas alone in the future and with just a little bit of planning I’m absolutely at peace with the idea.
Perhaps one year I’ll pack a suitcase of books and tick off one of the sunny destinations on my bucket list or even go and see the Northern Lights and stay in an igloo. But I can say hand on heart that the next time I will look forward to a solo Christmas, rather than dreading the prospect.
Tips from psychotherapist Caroline Evans on how to cope with Christmas alone
1. Pamper Yourself: Eat your favourite foods, get a new haircut, buy a new outfit, splash out on that treat you’ve had an eye on for a while. Christmas is a time to indulge yourself without feeling guilty – so go ahead.
2. Volunteer: There’s always ways you can be of service to others at Christmas. Whether it’s handing out gifts to children in hospital, or helping out at a homeless shelter, helping others will make you feel good about yourself.
3. Accept Invitations: Often people who are alone at Christmas have turned down invites to other peoples’ houses because they don’t want to intrude or be a bother. Call back and accept.
4. Practice Gratitude: Write down a list of everything you have in your life that you feel happy and grateful for. They can be big things or small things – but it’s emotionally healthy to remind ourselves of all the good things we have in our lives.
5. Get Busy: Pre-plan and pack your day with lots to do and plan things to look forward to after Christmas. Whether that’s spring cleaning the house from top to bottom and getting organised ahead of the New Year, going out on a day trip or even hosting an online Christmas where you Skype with friends and family who are too far away to visit, if you keep yourself busy you won’t have time to feel lonely.