In Saturday’s Guardian, Hadley Freeman challenged readers to reconsider the meanings of having a solo Christmas. Quite rightly, she distinguishes between being alone and being lonely, arguing that living alone can be happy; Christmases alone, moreover, can be voyages of discovery, times spent jetting off to Thailand or breaking the rules for the sake of it. She’s right, too, that people have preconceived ideas about Christmas, and often view the festive period through the multiple, exhausting lenses of modern consumerism: a kind of Charles-Dickens-meets-Christmas-with-the-Kranks orgy of family time, discarded wrapping and tables groaning under the weight of food. Of course, these are not the only kinds of Christmases, or the only kinds of families.
Just as good as family Christmases, maintains Freeman, are those Christmases we can choose to spend on our own – whether lying on ‘a beach in Goa’, binge-watching Christmas movies and eating baked potatoes or visiting India to rediscover the meaning of Christmas: ‘rest, recovery and happiness, and sometimes being alone is the best way to find that’.
I don’t disagree with everything that Freeman says. The tyranny of Christmas means that many people feel alone, and lonely. It is powerful to reclaim its meanings, to celebrate being alone, yes, as well as the quiet and reflection that solitude can bring. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude, of course, and that difference is one between emotional pain and contentment.
But Freeman’s vision of escaping Christmas past is refracted through the lens of a particular kind of economic and social privilege. Many lonely people – even those that choose to spend Christmas alone because they want to differentiate their identity from those crushingly awful childhood patterns – don’t have the money or the time or the mental health to embark on adventurous tours across the globe. Or even to enjoy the thrill of breaking tradition on their own at home. Many people who are most lonely are surrounded by, and responsible for, other people, whether they are carers, estranged and single parents, or experiencing disability and ill-health. These are the people who have, in 21st century Britain, been abandoned and rejected by society, reliant on food banks in the best of times and subject to terrible housing and even worse landlords.
Loneliness is a major social and emotional and economic and political problem. It is also defined as a health hazard, and a challenge to the basis of humanity in the 21st century. But the experience of loneliness is not one single thing; loneliness means different things to different people and at different points in their lives. The loneliness of a single mum whose baby has colic will not be the same experience as that felt by the newly divorced man propping up the bar at midnight. Or the elderly couple who are disconnected from the world and their heating.
It is right to argue that sometimes loneliness can be indulged and desired and sought after. But please let’s not forget that loneliness, like most things in life, affect old and young, rich and poor, black and white, men and women very differently. While being alone does not always equate with being lonely, and loneliness itself can be a choice, the grim reality is that impoverished and disenfranchised people are amongst the loneliest at Christmas time. This includes those starving themselves to pay for gifts or food for their children, living in bed and breakfasts on or the streets, hiding out in increasingly rare domestic violence shelters, or cast adrift in a world of mental suffering. These aren’t people who can forget everything and jet off to India.
My book on the history and meanings of loneliness will be published in 2018.