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Holiday Spirit, 21st Century Style: Kay Trimberger and I Share Our Vision

For singles (and everyone else), holiday "traditions" are multiplying.

[Back in October, I posted an interview with Kay Trimberger, author of The New Single Woman, about single women in India. That post generated a lot of interest, so I thought readers might also enjoy our latest musings about how singles spend the holidays. We wrote this post together. By the way, the picture is from my first Christmas out here on the West Coast. The other friends are in the beach house (not mine) putting the finishing touches on the rest of the food.]

We are both single women, so we are not at all surprised when the phone starts ringing around the holidays. We're talking reporters, not suitors. That's because we are also scholars of singlehood. We listen closely as the callers, often with a hint of pity, pose their predictable questions. How can singles survive the holidays? Can we offer advice for fending off desperation and despair?

In the minds of the questioners, single people are on the outside looking longingly into the windows of the American hearth-land. In every other household, they think, mom, dad, and the kids - and maybe other family and friends as well - are gathered around a fireplace, a dining room table, or a tree. Single people, they just know, are sad and alone.

Some really are. They wish that others would think to include them on the holidays, and they are deeply grateful when that happens (though they would prefer not to be regarded as doleful orphans rescued by the married heroes). Yet in the hundreds of conversations we have had with single people over the years, the conventional tale of yearning is not the one we hear most often.

Some single people love to celebrate holidays in blissful solitude. One single woman, a Drama professor and extraordinarily sociable person, described an idyllic Christmas spent in a big overstuffed chair with a good book and a glass of wine; the only sounds were the crackling timbers of the fire. One of us waxed rhapsodic about the joys of solitude to a reporter seeking suggestions for singletons. "Oh, I could never go to my editor with that!" she exclaimed.

Other single people organize their holiday celebrations around friendship rather than family. Dorothy, another woman one of us interviewed, should have known better than to look to marriage as her ticket to the holiday spirit. Growing up, she dreaded the holidays - too much family tension. Her second husband (the one she really loved) refused to recognize the holidays at all. Now a vibrant middle-aged single woman with no children of her own, Dorothy spends the holidays surrounded. Single friends and coupled friends, with and without children, gather round -sometimes at her place, sometimes at someone else's. This is holiday "tradition," 21st century style.

It is not just single people who set aside the familiar to try out a path less traveled. Julia and Michael, a married couple in their fifties, used to fly to Oregon to be with Julia's grown daughter from an earlier marriage, or jet to Arizona to join Michael's family, or drive 150 miles round trip to celebrate with Julia's mother, brother and his family. About ten years ago, however, exhausted from crowded airports and clogged highways, and from their demanding jobs that also involved commuting, they tried something new. Ever since, they have set aside at least one holiday a year to hike the ethereal, isolated trails of Point Reyes National Seashore.

Last Thanksgiving, when the hike was on their calendar, some friends invited the couple to go to the town's community dinner. Awesome wilderness or high school cafeteria? Out of allegiance to the ideal of fostering community ties, they headed back to high school. Only this auditorium had white tablecloths, flickering candles, and chamber music. Plus buffet tables laden with delicacies that few ninth graders could ever imagine. Singles and traditional and non-traditional couples and families intermingled. The participants differed in ethnicity and social class; they were united by community.

This Thanksgiving, Julia and Michael have accepted an invitation from a single woman friend to attend a small pot luck dinner. Now that they no longer feel guilty about separating holiday celebrations from strong and continuing ties to family, their choices have multiplied and their holidays are more likely to be joyful.

Others have talked to us about how divorce darkens the holidays, especially as children fly off to celebrate with one parent, leaving the other bereft. Yet over time, the wounds in many blended families heal, and complex combinations of extended family gather to celebrate together. The divorced couple and their new spouses and step-children assemble, perhaps inviting some or all of the multiple grandparents and other relatives, too.

So what happened to those traditional nuclear families, and their far-flung relatives who travel far and wide to join them for the holidays? They still exist, but they are in the minority. There are now more one-person American households (27%) than households consisting of a married couple and their children (23%). Households that include a married couple, with or without children, are now outnumbered by households without a married couple.

Families are smaller now, too. By the time they reach the age of 44, 20% of American women have not had any children. Those who do have children have fewer than they once did (an average of 1.9 in 2006, compared to 3.1 in 1976). Extended family gatherings, in which adult siblings find their way to a shared table for the holidays, are impossible for those who have no brothers or sisters. Friends, though, can have a place at all of our tables and in all of our lives.

Family ties are, and always will be, important. But increasingly, so are friends. Maybe our communities will also, in time, reclaim their rightful place in our hearts and our hearths. Solitude, too, may begin to get some respect.

The demographic face of the nation is changing and diversifying, and so is our holiday tableau. As Americans, we never stop re-inventing ourselves, or our holiday "traditions."

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