Table for One

Home Alone for Christmas? You're Not the Only One

More and more people are spending the holidays by themselves. This week, Table for One columnist Eric Kim finds out why.

by:
December 20, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Cooking for one is on the rise. Especially at this time of year.

We can make our own causal links about human behavior from winter to spring, but one thing I’ve discovered at the Table for One desk is that Google searches for the keyterm “dinner for one” spike in December. As the data shows, that number wanes a bit in January, and then dips down come February—until December rolls around all over again.

Search traffic for "dinner for one" from January 2018 to December 2018. Photo by Google

This happens every year.

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Top Comment:
“Feel like making your home into the gaudiest display imaginable so that the Baby Jesus can find it on Christmas Eve and deliver presents? Go for it. The best part for me about celebrating holidays alone (I have spent 2 Thanksgivings alone), is you get to choose what to eat. I sometimes find that there is a whole segment of the population that does not celebrate Christmas and see it as just another day. If you have an open mind, you can go to a halal restaurant or a kosher Israeli restaurant or a traditional Chinese restaurant and find a full house. It helps you remember just how diverse the world really is. ”
— Carlos C.
Comment

I have a theory: In the northern hemisphere, it’s coldest in December, which means fewer people are leaving their homes and more are confining themselves from the outside world. If Census data shows us that every year, more and more people are legally single and, on top of that, are living and dining alone, then it could make sense that these same individuals are cooking for themselves and seeking out single-serving recipes in the winter.

Another (more likely) theory is that people are just searching for the 18-minute comedy sketch, Dinner for One, which is the most re-aired television program ever. Those of us in the United States might not recognize the sketch, but it’s usually shown on New Year’s Eve in countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, South Africa, and Australia.

Another theory yet: Could it be, maybe, that people are actually spending the season by themselves?

To find out, I asked friends, colleagues, and readers a question:

Then, I asked a follow-up question: How did that make you feel? The flurry of responses I got was simultaneously funny, surprising, and heartbreaking.

Many viewed their home-alone holiday positively.

  • "Independent."
  • "Determined. Proud."
  • "Contemplative, peaceful, quiet."
  • "Cleansed, free from the constraints of society."
  • "A little bittersweet, but also stronger in myself."
  • "Sad, but in a sweet way. I’ve always appreciated the beauty in sentimental-sad situations."
  • "I like to spend New Year’s Eve alone (I don’t know if you count that). Much more gratifying than a party."
  • "Cooked myself a feast and binge-watched TV. Empowering and healing."
  • "Spent 12 hours working a shift as a nurse. Being with work family is good!"
  • "Relieved."

Others had a less clarifying experience.

  • "Saudade."
  • "Empty, actually."
  • "Scared and unloved."
  • "Absolutely okay and horrible at the same time."
  • "Sometimes perfect, sometimes overwhelmingly depressing."
  • "Confusingly (terrifyingly? sadly?) content."
  • "Dreadful. Except one in N.Y.C. with my dog. I made a giant roast just for me."
  • "Weird. I had just gotten divorced and didn’t feel like seeing anyone. But the solitude made me panic a bit."
  • "I was so anxious and isolated. Didn’t realize how you really get cut off from everyone."
  • "I skipped altogether one year while nursing a broken heart."
  • "Jealous. (Of the people who take their living family for granted.)"

That’s the way the cookie crumbles, for some.

  • "Just a normal day if I’m alone."
  • "Nothing much; that’s life."

And those were just the highlights. I received hundreds.

After reading these messages, I learned that there were more people out there than I realized who spend their holidays alone—regularly, in fact. But I also learned that many of these individuals feel a conflicting internal struggle between solitude (peace with oneself) and loneliness (sadness because one is alone).

I found myself drawn, in particular, to the answers in the second bucket, especially the one individual who simply wrote "Saudade." The Portuguese and Galician word "has many definitions, including a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened," writes Jasmine Garsd for NPR. "It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again. My favorite definition of saudade is by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: 'a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.'"

Daniel Bagnall, an executive chef at Public Records in Brooklyn, New York, reached out to me on Instagram when he saw my poll. Last year, due to his demanding work schedule, he spent the holidays alone and had mixed feelings about it.

“I ordered Chinese takeout, all the fixings,” he told me. “Sweet and sour chicken, vegetable lo mein, hot and sour soup, dumplings, rice, and probably more that I can’t remember. I watched Love Actually, followed by any random Christmas movie I could find online, and fell asleep to blinking Christmas lights and Michael Bublé. I was lonely, but I also felt free. It made me feel like I could do anything if I could survive the holidays alone.”

Others, like software engineer Micki Balder, don’t mind riding solo for Christmas and see it as a more relaxing alternative to the hubbub and stress of holiday travel. “I like spending the day cooking a feast for myself,” she says, “and then usually I’ll curl up on the couch with whiskey and watch some movies. I find that I love that for Christmas Day. But for some reason on Christmas Eve I find it to be a little more lonesome.”

I was lonely, but I also felt free. It made me feel like I could do anything if I could survive the holidays alone.
Daniel Bagnall

Even cookbook author Klancy Miller, who wrote Cooking Solo in 2016, agrees that being alone for Christmas can be a mixed bag. “It would make me sad to be alone for Christmas because I associate the holidays with family and friends,” she tells me. “I also think the holidays can be hard for people for that exact reason if a person is dealing with loss or family discord.

“That said, I did spend one New Year’s Eve alone on purpose and it was glorious. I had just moved back to the city and was living in the East Village. I made a pizza from one of Alice Waters’ cookbooks. Plus a big salad. I bought my favorite champagne and listened to great music. After eating, I walked around the block with my suitcase because my roommate at the time told me it was good luck for travel in the coming year.”

As for the spike in searches for solo dinners in December, Miller concurs with my first theory. “I think of winter as hibernation time, and ideal for staying indoors more and cooking food.”

It makes sense to want to cook for yourself in the winter, especially during the holidays when there’s time to spread out and enjoy the activity. It’s important to note that cooking for one isn’t just about feeding yourself; it’s about finding comfort in the ritual, as well. Not least if you’re alone for Christmas, and in need of a simple but celebratory expression of your selfhood—in the form of, say, dinner.

Have you ever been alone for Christmas? Share your story in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

29 Comments

Kim December 28, 2019
Late to the party. Apologies. Our holidays have never been very big. Majority of relatives live too far away. Our daughter, an only child, has married and moved to Europe. The past 4 Christmases have been spent with them and it has been wonderful! This year, unfortunately, travel wasn’t possible. No worries, we thought. We’ll just spend time with the friends we always celebrated with in the past. Well, either they don’t like us much anymore, or they’ve gotten used to us not being around this time of year...anyway, Christmas was a quiet day. The dogs were happy to have our undivided attention for days on end! Some new health challenges I’m dealing with prevented us from seeing friends Christmas Eve. In short, our Christmas has gotten smaller. This frightened me at first. I genuinely worried that people didn’t like me (just me, everyone adores my husband lol) maybe we didn’t ‘fit in’ anymore? Something, right?
A glass of cider, a warm fire, dogs on your lap, pondering what any of this means. I still don’t know. But it’s OKAY. He and I, the spoiled dogs, we are enough. And if we are unable to get to Europe next Christmas, we will still be enough, it’ll still be okay. The peace, the quiet, it’s good. It’s what we, especially me, need now.
 
Kim S. December 24, 2019
In my younger years, I worked in the performing arts, so my relationship to the big holidays always represented work and an additional layer of frenzy and schedule conflict most others don't experience, so I always relished a few days of solitude and simple, personal rituals at the crest of the season. I am widowed now and live far enough from family that a flight is involved. My holiday strategy is to travel the in-between time in early December. It's a more intimate visit because I'm not in competition for my family's attention, the conversations are calmer and deeper, I'm available to participate and contribute to holiday preparations, the smaller children are not over-hyped, and I've established relationships with the older children so I know how to build their conversational confidence in a larger crowd of adults. For the holiday-day itself, I am quite content with my solitude. I don't have a specific ritual; exploring a particular kitchen technique and tasting unique wines, spices or other foodstuffs creates a sense memory for something new I can carry forward in my life. If dwelling on a loss saddens me, I work in the kitchen to recall a positive memory of a meal shared as best I can with what is at hand.
 
Samantha December 24, 2019
After many years of surreptitious solitude, I recently admitted my preference and left my second husband. This Christmas will be my first on my own terms, celebrated in my own way. I am looking to replace my childhood traditions, and have not found what that looks like yet. I do know that I will be making Christmas Carnitas, I will be going to the movies by myself (Little Women), and I will be sharing my Carnitas with my ex. But by choice, not expectation. There have been moments when I have felt lonely in this Holiday season, but never as much as previous years when I was in the company of family. Recognizing that fact has been liberating, and tends to quiet the lonely voice. Then I can relax into my calm personal space, eat what I want, when I want, and feel truly comfortable and at peace. I find your voice, and your writing so comforting and validating. Thank you! And I hope you enjoy the Holiday whatever form it takes...
 
sf-dre December 23, 2019
I don't go out on New Years's Eve, time for comfort food, red wine, toasting the new year at 9 Pacific time. Binge watching and outdoor hockey while putting away decorations, a lentil dish for luck.

New holiday tradition, thanks to my nephew's mother in law, tamale making on Christmas Day.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 24, 2019
A lentil dish for luck. I may add that to my repertoire this year for my solo New Year's.
 
Kim S. December 28, 2019
I have Southern roots, so Hoppin' John (black-eye peas and greens with ham) are served for New Year's luck!
 
Linda December 23, 2019
The older I get the more draining I find people. After a long year of work and obligations and fitting in with everyone around me, I just want to shut the door and recharge by being by myself for a week. I plan my Christmas meal and make something special, usually more complicated techniques or that recipe I’ve always wanted to try but never got round to. Buy the expensive cheese, the artisan bread and make ice cream from scratch Set the table with the good china. Don’t drink alcohol but will make a fancy “dry” punch.
The weather here is hot and humid and that’s the perfect excuse to go slow, unwind and start to feel human again.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 24, 2019
"...and start to feel human again." I love that, and so true.

p.s. People are draining!
 
Amy M. December 23, 2019
This article is everything I needed to read today. And I’m so grateful for it.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 24, 2019
I'm so glad, Amy. Thanks for commenting.
 
Dauntlesst December 23, 2019
It’s been over two years since my 30 plus year relationship ended nicely. What I learned from it was how to be a family and how to be a part of a large family. At this time of the year I miss that feeling of belonging. Our daughters and my former partner travel to join her brothers and sisters and their mass of cousins, aunts, and uncles several times a year especially Christmas. I do have companionship with my neighbors but it is not the same. Ironically, I did not know or understand the concept of family and its importance until I was no longer a part of one. Another irony is that at my core I enjoy and relish time alone and cooking for myself often sharing with my neighbors.
I relish your articles. They ring truth for my soul.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 24, 2019
Thank you for reading, and for sharing. Even those of us who enjoy our solitude want to feel like we belong. I've learned that it's just about carving out those spaces for ourselves. Happy Holidays. x
 
Carla C. December 23, 2019
Awesome article!! I loved this part " It’s important to note that cooking for one isn’t just about feeding yourself; it’s about finding comfort in the ritual, as well. Not least if you’re alone for Christmas, and in need of a simple but celebratory expression of your selfhood"... so true! Including "saudade"🇧🇷🥰
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 24, 2019
Happy saudade, Carla.
 
Am9 December 22, 2019
I've spent many holidays alone since 2008 when my last relationship ended. It was very difficult at first, but now I either see it in a way that I can do what I want, when I want and don't have to check in with anyone. But originally it was hard, gut punching, weepy, depression inducing and now have moved to making something nice for me and the cats... haha... true. I also am an iconoclast and don't celebrate the religious holidays that I used to. I love Halloween/Samhain and then I kind of shut down until my birthday and Mardi Gras... And I have traveled alone many times now and yet again, feel that I have some fun making new friends or just enjoying the world that is different than the one I see every day.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 24, 2019
It is nice and freeing to change it up when your life needs a refresh. Despite your non-celebrating of the holidays, hope you're cooking up something delicious and enjoying the end of the year.
 
Lune December 20, 2019
One of my favorite movies (Next Stop: Wonderland) has this great quote: (reading/quoting William Wordsworth, "The Prelude") "When from our better selves we have too long Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop, Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, How gracious, how benign, is Solitude." It is a wonderful movie about solitude, and a funny insight on the ancestor of all those dating apps!
 
Liz S. December 21, 2019
Thank you for the movie and poem quote! I have found both and will watch/read on my Christmas alone :)

I am 64 and have spent the majority of the last 30 Thanksgiving, Christmas holidays on my own … by choice. I had idyllic childhood family holidays and I enjoy thinking about them on the days and sometimes remembering with family or friends. When I first moved away from family, I travelled "home" several years and it was always challenging: holiday travel with crowds and weather, expense... I stopped. The first few years on my own felt a bit odd, but then I started my own solo traditions. In addition to enjoying the time on my own as well as fond remembrances, I found I did not get caught up in trying to make adult holidays some imitation of my childhood holidays.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 21, 2019
How benign indeed.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 21, 2019
Gal,

This rings so true for me: “I found I did not get caught up in trying to make adult holidays some imitation of my childhood holidays.”

Especially as family members pass and children grow up. There’s no use chasing the past.
 
athomecookuwsz December 20, 2019
I spent the holidays alone last year in New York, where I work, with my family 3000 miles away. My job is such that I have to work the week of Christmas, and to my dismay, my (NYC-based) boyfriend and his family went away for the holidays. Because I'm Jewish and Hanukkah had already passed, I didn't think it would matter that much, but I ended up feeling really alone and isolated across the country from my family and working when everyone else was with theirs and away from work. This year I again have to work but have my boyfriend with me and we're traveling for new years, which should be more fun!, but again, finding myself feeling sad about not being with family. Something about this time of year... I did enjoy though, last year, ordering indian food on christmas and eating it in front of a silly rom-com.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 21, 2019
Thanks for sharing :) Yes, no matter how much fun you make it for yourself, there’s something about the holidays that can make anyone feel alone (even when they’re not). Glad you’re traveling this year and creating nee traditions.
Happy Holidays,
E
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 21, 2019
new*
 
Carlos C. December 20, 2019
I think there is societal pressure to be sociable and “belong,” especially during holidays. A lot of us go along with it out of a sense of cultural or societal obligation. If you come from a collectivist culture, you might feel you are betraying your roots if you don’t surround yourself with people during the holidays (regardless of how toxic they may be). I feel now a lot of people are taking control of their own lives and asking themselves why they put up with things they don’t find pleasurable, and that includes spending holidays with people. The beauty in being alone (which I separate from being lonely) is that you are responsible for your own pleasure. You are not subject to anyone’s whims, tastes, traditions, or prejudices. It can be liberating! Don’t feel like decorating? Don’t. Feel like making your home into the gaudiest display imaginable so that the Baby Jesus can find it on Christmas Eve and deliver presents? Go for it. The best part for me about celebrating holidays alone (I have spent 2 Thanksgivings alone), is you get to choose what to eat. I sometimes find that there is a whole segment of the population that does not celebrate Christmas and see it as just another day. If you have an open mind, you can go to a halal restaurant or a kosher Israeli restaurant or a traditional Chinese restaurant and find a full house. It helps you remember just how diverse the world really is.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 21, 2019
Carlos, friend, I always appreciate your essays in my comments sections. Happy Christmas or whatever you celebrate. 🌲
E
 
Lauren B. December 20, 2019
Beautiful....all about the ritual <3
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 21, 2019
Ritual is comfort.
 
Caitlin R. December 20, 2019
I think it's all about your mindstate. You can be with your entire family and still feel kinda lonely — for instance, if you're in your 30s and your aunt puts you at the kids table because you're single — or, you can be alone and feel untethered, and enjoy the ritual of cooking for yourself without any family dynamics to navigate.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 20, 2019
"if you're in your 30s and your aunt puts you at the kids table because you're single"

lol, sigh.