My sister, Trisha, went to church on Christmas Eve by herself. None of us meant for it to happen, but it did, and I could tell it wasn’t a great experience as soon as she got home. She sat alone, surrounded by rows and rows of empty seats. When the congregation was instructed to “hug the person you came with,” she just kind of stood there until a kind stranger came from a distance to hug her. Attending Christmas Eve service solo was less jolly, less merry. She said she realized what it’s like to be alone on Christmas.
“I go to church by myself every week!” was my super gracious response to her story. I do, though. I walk in alone each Sunday, hoping the chairs to the left and right of me fill up with people who make eye contact with me and maybe possibly want to be best friends forever. It’s a lonely experience that I dread and fight through on a weekly basis.
We came to the conclusion that her revelations of “alone” and my need to validate my definition of “alone” were two very different things, but the whole discussion set the tone for the rest of the week. Holidays — days on the calendar we’ve decided are for love and family and togetherness — have a way of magnifying the loneliness you wish you could solve with overeating and presents. It’s just the way it is.
My extended family spent Christmas in the mountains of Dunlap, Tennessee. There were 25 of us in the house for five days, which means I shared a room with my parents, my brother, his wife, my sister, and her fiancé. (Seventh wheel?) Our room was a Tetris game of blow-up mattresses, a maze of luggage and coats and shoes. Miraculously, no one was killed in the making of this holiday, despite the close quarters, and, if nothing else, it was an initiation for my sister’s future husband. (He passed.) We all got to hear and smell each other’s bathroom business, wore pants more often than we would in the privacy of our own homes, and woke up wondering if we made any weird body noises in the night. What a treat!
A handful of my cousins were there, too. I have a bunch of them. Eight on my dad’s side and ten on my mom’s (I think?). I’m the last single adult cousin remaining on both sides (except for two who have special needs — I’m in good company if you ask me.) I don’t particularly mind or feel ostracized or unincluded. I’m not that dramatic.
(Although I did go on a tiny rant at Christmas dinner about Costco discriminating against single people because it’s completely ridiculous to shop in bulk for one, and I will never get to partake in their low gas prices. Eventually I broke down enough to say I’d give a membership a try even though one of my cousins was like “DON’T GO IN THERE” like I would be handed the keys to a minivan and a pair of mom jeans immediately upon entering. Now I’m conflicted.)
But the point is: it’s a thing. My singleness is a thing. It’s an ever-present dynamic of my family’s make-up, and even if no one else thinks about it, I do.
This year my Uncle Rick made beautiful wooden birdhouses for everyone as a Christmas gift. “One for each family,” he said, as they were distributed to all the couples around the room. In his instruction for which birdhouse went where, I heard him say, “Tara gets one,” and my very own personal birdhouse was placed directly in front of me.
I am my own family. I got my own birdhouse.
I allowed myself to overanalyze it for a solid 20 seconds before making a joke about how I was the only one who got my own birdhouse that I didn’t have to share with ANYBODY ELSE. But it was there: that little twinge of loneliness. That tiny voice that says I’ll be alone in my backyard, slowly turning into the Central Park Pigeon Lady in Home Alone II or the “Tuppence a bag” Bird Lady in Mary Poppins or any other fictitious homeless woman who has an unhealthy relationships with birds.
I let my uncle know how much I appreciated that gesture. It really was so kind! He could have lumped me in with my parents, but he didn’t. And now I have my very own birdhouse, and you better believe I’m gonna feed the crap outta some hungry birds.
There were moments when I fled the scene as couples and individual families had their photos taken in front of the Christmas tree. You know, the way you swiftly exit the dance floor when a slow song comes on at a wedding you didn’t bring a date to? It’s a lot less uncomfortable if you just excuse yourself. Although I kind of wish I had a picture of just me standing in front of the tree. I’d frame it and send a poster-sized copy to all my ex-boyfriends like YEAH, YOU COULD HAVE HAD THIS BIRDHOUSE.
Thankfully, there were plenty of sibling photos to be taken, including one with my sisters in our matching Christmas jammies. We thought it would be a good idea to do a stack pose, where Trisha would give me a piggy back ride, and Lauren would sit on the floor in front of us like a normal person. Things went awry as soon as I jumped onto Trisha’s back, and we both fell backwards into the tree. Into the Christmas tree, smashing presents, emerging with pine needles in every place a pine needle could be. Everyone was watching, and everyone laughed, especially since it was my second time falling into the Christmas tree within 24 hours. (It was a confusing time. Everything happened so fast.) All I could think was that I might actually be as obese as the amount of holiday treats I’d consumed would suggest.
One of my little cousins, Madison, is obsessed with my sister’s fiancé. She writes his name on her Magnadoodle repeatedly and sits on his lap as often as possible whenever he’s around. She fell in love with him the day they met. I’m pretty sure it’s because she loves the Disney princesses, and Bryce kind of resembles a blond Disney prince. That’s my theory, anyway. Her idea of love is the happily ever after in all the animated movies she’s watched over and over again, where all the main characters are engaged or married at the end. (Ah, so pure!) That’s probably what prompted her burning question to me, which was: “When are you going to get a boyfriend?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Maddie! When do you think I should get one?” I asked in return.
“Maybe next year,” she said.
In her dreams, I’ll come to Christmas next year with my own Prince Charming for her to try and steal. She gave me a generous time limit in which to complete this task, and I don’t want to let her down, but princes have been hard to come by. I’m honestly just thankful that no one else in my family asked if I’m dating anyone. It was a relief not to have to trail off awkwardly into a new topic or pretend I needed to use the restroom immediately. Thanks, fam.
So, yes. Holidays can be lonely. Even surrounded by the most hilarious group of people in the middle of a game of Cards Against Humanity (Father, forgive me!), there were reminders that everyone else has something I don’t. They have Christmas cards with adorable family photos on them and couples gifts and kids to trick into believing in Santa and reasons not to fall into the Christmas tree. Twice.
But you know what they don’t have?
Their own birdhouse.
Christmas was pretty merry after all.