Spending the Holidays Alone Might Be the Mental Health Journey You Need this Season
At HelloGiggles, we believe that celebrating can happen anytime, anywhere—even if that means switching out big parties for virtual hangouts, cocktail dresses for cozy sweats, or trips abroad for dinners at home. In At Home for the Holidays, we're showing you that just because this holiday season may look different than usual doesn't mean it can't be just as festive.
Like many people, I sat down at the beginning of 2020 and made a list of goals I wanted to achieve this year. And like most people, I put the majority of my list on the back burner in March due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While this year has presented me with a brand new set of challenges and goals, there is one item from my original list that is both the easiest to still accomplish and is causing me the most anxiety: spending the holiday season by myself.
As the youngest child in an Asian-American household, even speaking this plan aloud ignites a rush of guilt that courses through my entire body, lodges itself in my brain, and screams at me in the late hours of the night. Traditions are big in my family. Hosting holiday parties with our loved ones surrounded by food, music, and drinks is an art form my mom and dad have perfected over the past several decades and a skill they have passed down to all three of their girls.
By the time I turned 12 and both of my older siblings left the house to go to college, the holiday season was no longer just an excuse for everyone to get together; it was a necessity. I remember eagerly awaiting every school break during the fall so that I could see my older sisters return home. Those small breaks from college, and eventually work, became the only time our family of three was guaranteed a time to be a family of five again. This is always what made the holidays feel so special to me.
Over the years, as my sisters matured, I watched as their independence gave way to new experiences and traditions of their own, which led them to other homes for the holidays or, sometimes, just staying put in their own homes.
I also watched as my parents learned to cope with that (hint: they did not handle it well). Suddenly I saw myself as the person required to keep the traditions going. I found myself wrangling together holiday plans months ahead of time and checking in with everyone to make sure that we'd all be around to spend time with my parents. I managed car rentals and surprise dinners. One year, I did an advent calendar of gifts for my parents in an effort to put the emphasis back on them and the traditions they created (which ended up in some very sweet video footage of them slow-dancing to Ella Fitzgerald's cover of Cheek to Cheek).
However, each year presented itself with a new challenge, and each year the holidays lost a bit of the charm they once had. I began to feel physically and mentally drained after every holiday get-together and would find myself counting down the time until I could be alone again. My less-than-permanent relationships and time off from work suddenly felt compromised for the sake of others. Before I knew it, I was 27 years old, fighting for a glimmer of something that had faded a long time ago.
Last year, that urgency to spend time alone quadrupled as I declared to my parents that I was no longer going to spend the holidays with them. I waited for them to get angry and insult my selfishness and tell me that I was being silly. Instead, they said, "I understand."
In one conversation, all of that guilt from not wanting to be with my family during arguably the most important time of the year—a time when most people aren't able to celebrate with their families—was diffused. I had gaslit myself into thinking that I had to be there for both my parents and my sisters, all at the expense of my own mental health, when in fact it was never my role to fill. Maybe my sisters knew all along that trying something for yourself during the holiday season was worth exploring.
This year, in light of both the election and a global pandemic—a time when it has been difficult for everyone to decide how to best handle family gatherings—this "me time" became even more crucial. While I was hoping that I'd create a new tradition of traveling alone during the holidays (one that I still plan on exploring in the future when it's a safer option), I'm using my first holiday season alone as an opportunity to revamp my small Brooklyn apartment into a more uplifting and inviting space. And I'm tapping into the three holiday traditions my parents instilled in me in an effort to bring back that familiar sense of holiday joy that I've been without for so long: decorating, cooking, and entertaining.
I don't pretend to be an expert on this subject, but if this is your first year spending the holidays alone—well, you're not truly alone. Here's my attempt at creating my own traditions at home this year. Hopefully they'll help you navigate your way through this holiday season.
Three Steps to Transform Your Space for a Holiday Spent Alone
Step 1: Switch up your decor and try something new.
When I was growing up, my mom went all out with our holiday decorations. I'd watch in amazement as she'd transform the house, making it feel warm and inviting. My mind immediately eases in an environment lit only by string lights and candles during the holiday season.
While I don't have a lot of my own holiday decorations, I do have my hands. My mom typically puts together her own garlands each year, and she has always enjoyed it for the peace that it brings to a busy season. So I took a note from her and this year attempted to make my own pom-pom garland. I found an easy beginner's kit on Amazon, and while I ran into some road bumps (tip from a friend: use wool yarn instead of cotton), I managed to create a joyfully dilapidated string of fluffy balls to hang in my living room. Who wants perfection when you can have something homemade?
Step 2: Get cooking.
My favorite part of the holidays is the food. My family is big on turkey during the holiday season, and while it can take a considerable amount of time, I personally find that a day spent preparing and cooking eases my mind and helps me feel productive. This year, I'm putting my own spin on our traditional turkey meal with recipes from Ina Garten's new cookbook, Modern Comfort Food. I'll also be continuing a tradition of my own: pie-making. My favorite apple pie recipe is from A Cozy Kitchen.
Step 3: Movies, movies, and more movies.
Back in the pre-pandemic days when I'd feel the most mentally foggy, I'd treat myself to a solo date to the movies. During quarantine, I've recreated those evenings with scheduled movie nights with some snacks and self-enforced movie theater rules (i.e. phones off).
Luckily, the holiday season provides a wealth of entertainment options. This year, I'm creating the ultimate holiday movie list (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Holiday) and making some grown-up movie table snacks (thanks again, Ina) to go along with them. I've already got my Christmas day movie planned out. Here's a little something to get your list started.
So as I begin my solo holiday celebrations, I know everything is worth trying once. It's okay to fail, and it's okay to try new traditions. I think that's what I'm most excited about: the journey.
Featured photo by Jenna Brillhart