Singles during the Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukkah seasons—quintessential family holidays in the U.S.—are stereotyped as lonely, isolated and pathetic. While popular entertainment is now as likely to depict family conflict as well as joy during the holidays, we have noticeably fewer images for singles.
Contrary to stereotypes, my study of long-term, middle-aged single women, found little holiday loneliness and angst. Many of these baby boom single women have large families. They range from Wynona, a divorced single mother in her fifties with four grown children and seven grandchildren to ever-single Emily, in her late thirties with no children of her own, but with meaningful ties to her five siblings and their children.
For other single women with fewer family members—or family who live far away—holiday tension focuses on building new traditions with friends in a culture where friendship is more fluid and less valued than family relationships. I discovered that a network of supportive friends is one of the most important factors that lead to satisfaction with single life. But, at the holidays, family obligations still trump any commitment to friends. Rather than being isolated, single women often face conflicts that are both similar to and different from those in family-based holidays. My own experience is a good example.
When I was a single woman in my mid-thirties, I sought an alternative to flying East to spend the holidays with my parents and one or more of my married siblings and their children. As a homeowner who was integrated into a left-intellectual community in Berkeley, I became a prime promoter of holiday dinners with a network of friends—coupled and single—who did not have family nearby. Thirty years later, this tradition continues, but it has experienced many setbacks and alterations along the way.
At first, the couple upstairs—good friends of mine with whom I bought a duplex—hosted Thanksgiving and I, Christmas/Hanukkah. The six to eighteen guests always brought some of the food and drink. In memory, these early days were easy and fun, with little worry about the guest list or work involved. Once tensions arose in our semi-communal household, however, the holiday meals were not always idyllic. After eight years—during which time I adopted a baby and the couple had a baby as well—we sold the house in a hostile divorce. Our network of friends splintered.
For a few years, I hosted both Thanksgiving and Christmas in my new home to a smaller group of friends. Soon, however, I convinced Barbara, a single woman friend, to organize Thanksgiving at her house. We had a core group of about seven single women and men and a few couples, with other guests coming and going for holiday meals. But again conflicts disrupted the core.
One of the couples split up, and independently conflicts arose between several of the men and two of the women. In an extended family, one might put hostilities aside to participate in a holiday meal so as not to disrupt the family tradition. For good or bad, we have no such commitment to a friendship network or a holiday built around it. Thus, antagonisms disrupted, but did not destroy, our holiday traditions.
I still host a Christmas dinner to a smaller group with new additions to the core and a changing periphery. For a few years, I started giving my party on a day other than Christmas, so that my friends with family obligations could come. They enjoyed it, but I often felt bereft on Christmas day with no family nearby and my grown son going off to parties at his girlfriend's house or to spend time with his friends. So I went back to a dinner on December 25, finding I enjoyed the smaller group, especially since my son felt more obligation to attend.
I’m left, however, to improvise for Thanksgiving. Mainly due to the conflicts in our friendship network, Barbara stopped hosting Thanksgiving. For a few years, my son and I celebrated Thanksgiving with the extended family of my friend Judy and her son. Judy's family all live locally and were warm and welcoming to us, but they were not our family. So I returned to looking for a Thanksgiving based on friendship.
As a working single mother, hosting both holidays is too much work for me, but other women in my circle are reluctant take on the chore. "My house is too small," said one; "I can't cook," said another. "People don't want a vegetarian Thanksgiving," said a third. A coupled woman wanted to preserve the option of going out of town. One year, I helped one of the single men host. But then his son, daughter-in-law and grandchild moved in with him, and he was back to a family holiday. This year, my son is away and I'm celebrating the holiday with a friend's friends.
I could get depressed about this seeming failure after thirty years to establish an alternative to a family Thanksgiving. But I remind myself that I've been hanging in there for all this time, and I think about all the families split by divorce and remarriage into both blended and fractured families, who also may struggle with establishing satisfying holiday traditions. Because friendship has no legal standing and few institutionalized rules, however, we have even less guidance for how to work around conflict in order to build holiday rituals.
All of us could benefit, I think, from examples of how to integrate friends and family at the holidays. For an uplifting treat see Pieces of April. In this film, a single woman tries to make a Thanksgiving dinner for her suburban family, inviting them to her East Village apartment. She is saved only by the efforts of her offbeat friends and neighbors, who come to share a dinner memorable for both family and friends.
Sociologist E. Kay Trimberger is professor emerita of women's and gender studies at Sonoma State University and is a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of The New Single Woman , she lives in California. Visit her website at www.kaytrimberger.com.