A tradition of untraditional celebrations
Jane Ganahl Sunday, December 22, 2002
Every family that celebrates Christmas has its rituals, such as when to get the tree, whether to go to church, what to cook (since pretty much everybody -- even me -- cooks), whether to open presents on Christmas morning or Christmas Eve.
Because my parents were from that weird dinosaur race called People Who Stay Together Forever, a lot of our family traditions were instituted in classic "Donna Reed Show" fashion.
My mom would do all the cooking and almost all the shopping for presents; it was so obvious that when we said our obligatory "Gee, thanks, Mom and Dad!" my father would laugh. "Well, I went to a great deal of trouble!"
My dad would get the tree and hammer the stand together in a manly way.
Those family traditions have morphed with my generation. Being a single parent has meant playing both dad and mom roles in our household traditions. I get the tree and wrestle it into the stand and take family photos, but also wrap a ton of presents , and do my once-a-year sugar cookie bake. (I am Christmas woman, hear me roar.)
Loving my own grounding traditions as I do, and because my daughter, Erin, is my immediate, built-in family, I used to worry about my numerous single friends.
But I've noticed how, over the years, they have taken traditional holiday observances and rewritten them into new ones that require neither a mate nor a family to make the practitioner feel part of the season.
San Francisco author Ethan Watters has been studying the changing traditions of single people for a book with the working title of "Urban Tribes of the Never Marrieds: Secrets of Community From an Unlikely Source." The book, due out this year, was spawned by a sensational New York Times essay a year ago that circulated on the Internet like a virus.
Watters has seen holiday traditions among single people solidify over the years into what he calls "lovely alternatives."
"As I've studied the co-opting of holidays by young unmarried groups, I've noticed a progression," says Watters, whose other nonfiction books include "Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria."
"In the first few years of living in a city, unmarried people tend to go home, and then as they stay longer, there is a shift," he says. "The group slowly begins to co-opt the family holidays too."
Holidays normally considered sacred eventually start becoming days when the group gathers as its own family.
"The longer the group exists, the more they tend to declare themselves their own family of choice," he says.
Several of my friends belong to just such groups, and as Watters notes, most hardly notice when their blood families don't play a role in their holidays.
My friend C., who is 38 and in publishing, had a group with whom she celebrated the holidays for seven years in a row, eschewing her family in San Diego. "These were friends who either didn't want to or could not go home for Christmas and/or were Jewish," she says. "We called it the 'Anti-Dysfunctional Family Christmas Celebration.' "
Like many groups, it splintered and died out, but C. never worries about being lonely. "I have my large circle of warm, fuzzy friends, not to mention the two small fuzzy creatures who share my living space."
Some single friends are actually thrilled that they don't have the stress and complications that family can bring.
"I love being single during the holidays," says M., who is 34 and involved in digital arts. "I watch others struggle with whose family gets their time, or jumping from place to place to satisfy everybody.
"Sometimes I have a tree trimming party and invite all my friends to bring ornaments," she says. "Having them here reminds me of the many fabulous people I have in my life."
Several friends have chosen community service as a way of connecting to the holiday spirit.
"I always do at least two volunteer gigs -- at Glide's kitchen and/or wrapping presents for low-income kids," says J., a 34-year-old dancer.
None of my single girlfriends suggested that part of their holiday ritual was to make a New Year's resolution to get a boyfriend. Au contraire.
Says M., "At the New Year, I take the time to meditate -- how California am I? -- on my previous year. I create a card with my word for the year and send it to close friends."
And on Christmas Day, guess where Watters will be? Opening the doors of his Media Gulch home to his urban tribe, his adopted family.