Table For One, Please. A Solo Thanksgiving

Nov 22, 2012
Originally published on November 22, 2012 8:19 pm

This is America, where Thanksgiving is portrayed in popular culture as a time for gatherings of loving families and friends, holding hands while saying grace over a roast turkey, passing casseroles and footballs, reminiscing about the past and dreaming of the future.

But. This being America, we also know that traditions — just like every other aspect of contemporary life — become more complex the more we examine them.

So when we posted a question recently on NPR's Facebook page asking those who are planning to spend Thanksgiving alone to tell us why and how, we got hundreds and hundreds of very different responses.

Mixed Reactions

Some people were upset that we even brought up the subject of going solo on Thanksgiving.

"Geez, NPR, rub it in," was one Facebook response.

Another: "This is the saddest thing NPR has ever posted."

Others were thankful, thankful for the opportunity to point out why they will be alone — by choice or by necessity.

"Initially, this may seem depressing," one person said. "But as someone who has spent a Thanksgiving alone and enjoyed it, I have to say that sometimes spending time with the family is overrated."

Another wrote, "Why is that day any different from any other day? And what's so awful about enjoying one's own company?"

Still others offered opinions: "You must hate people if you're choosing to be alone on Thanksgiving."

And another person responded: "I am a little surprised and disheartened by the comments to this post. I clicked on it because I have spent this holiday alone in the past, not because I hate people and I didn't necessarily find it depressing. For the holiday season, perhaps you should keep your judgmental biases on how holidays should be spent to yourself and restrain from declaring other people's lives or decisions depressing."

Complicated reactions from a complicated nation at a complicated moment in our timeline. In any case, one thing is certain: Many Americans will be spending Thanksgiving Day alone.

Single Servings

"At a time when too many people are feeling hyper-connected, overstimulated, too busy and too hassled, what could be more dreamy than spending an entire day completely on your own, doing whatever you want, whenever you want?" says Bella DePaulo, who teaches psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. "Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that are highly scripted. You are supposed to spend it with other people — especially with family. All jokes and sitcoms aside, you are supposed to want to spend it that way."

But a lot of Americans are celebrating by themselves because of demanding jobs, challenging schoolwork, family tensions or the expense of travel. Some don't care for all the dinner-table questions people ask, or the political talk, or the meat-and-sweet potatoes menu, or the lame jokes; some people prefer going on nature hikes or biking or snowboarding or strolling around empty cityscapes on Thanksgiving Day. A few are even crossing over to Canada, where it's just another Thursday.

Some people simply find it easier to be alone. "I'm a very busy divorced mom and business owner," says Delaine Due of Ashland, Ore. "A few years ago, I started giving myself an artist's meditation retreat on Thanksgiving weekends when my child is with his dad's family. It's as if I'm single and in art college again." Due says she enjoys, for the brief time, being in control of her environment. "I get to choose the wine, the materials, the music, the food, without ever having to ask anyone else's permission."

Mackenzi Johnson works in merchandising in Nashville, Tenn. Her family will be convening many hours away in Northeast Ohio. "The distance, the insane traffic and the logistics of loading the four dogs into a station wagon makes staying home for Thanksgiving a much more attractive option," Johnson says. "I haven't come up with anything for dinner yet, but I've got the version of Company with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert." She says she realizes the irony of watching Company.

"There's a dive bar around the corner that usually opens Thanksgiving night, and they have karaoke," Johnson says. "I might brush up on the lyrics to All by Myself."

Living in San Francisco, Joel Goldfarb doesn't have any relatives nearby. "I'm a single gay man, 49. My parents are deceased," he says. "Friends typically have other plans. I don't want anyone taking pity on me, so I don't tell anyone I'm going to be alone. I hate the feeling but somehow survive it."

Laura Thornton, a student at the University of Chicago Law School, says some of her friends have invited her to spend the holiday with them. "But I never liked Thanksgiving much anyway, so I'd prefer to spend it alone."

Her plan, she says, is to "just chill out with my dog and drink whiskey in my apartment, like I did last Thanksgiving. Sometimes I find it hard to take time out for myself, so it's actually kind of nice to have this time imposed on me. Plus, hopefully I'll get a lot of work done."

'Something Else Entirely'

And there are those for whom life's cruel turns have made the thought of celebrating Thanksgiving anathema or have forced them to find different ways to mark the day.

"I will be spending Thanksgiving by myself this year because I am not in a holiday spirit," says Lesli DeGross of Baltimore. Her only child, Zakary, passed away from cancer in 2010.

"Since then, holidays don't feel the same and are difficult to get through," she says. "I miss him so much that I'll end up crying the whole day because he isn't here with me."

Diane McGee Hardin lives near Austin, Texas, and has multiple sclerosis. "I will be alone this Thanksgiving. My story may seem sad, but I've come up with a plan to enjoy this year." Hardin has offered to be an online resource for her Facebook friends who are looking for Thanksgiving cooking advice.

"So far," she says, "I've written several recipes for friends and have dished up a fair number of suggestions and inspiration. I may not get to eat with them — most of them don't realize I'll be alone — but I'll be involved, and that makes me feel a lot better."

And what about DePaulo, who was described by The Atlantic as "America's foremost thinker and writer on the single experience"? How is she planning to spend the day? "This year," she says, "I'm celebrating Thanksgiving on my own. I'll sleep late, and if it is a typical sunny day here in Southern California, I'll walk the beach or one of the breathtaking trails. My computer, my email and all other electronic devices will be off all day. I love to cook, so maybe I'll make a few things I love. I'll probably read a novel all the way through without having to set it aside again and again because I think I need to get some work done. Or I could have a Netflix night — or maybe both."

And, she adds, "Here's the thing about celebrating a holiday your own way: If I wake up and decide that I feel like doing something else entirely, well, then, I'll just do that instead."

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Thanksgiving is portrayed in popular culture as a time for gatherings of loving families and friends, holding hands while saying grace over a roast turkey. So begins a story on our website today, by our colleague Linton Weeks. But his story isn't about that portrayal. It's about the reality for millions of Americans who spend the holiday alone. For some, it's a choice; some, not.

Hoping to explore this idea of the solo Thanksgiving, Linton put out a call for stories on Facebook, and got hundreds of responses. We're going to bring you two of them now. First, Valerie Baxter in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she is a fur trapper. Valerie says this is the first time she can remember spending Thanksgiving alone. And I asked her why this year.

VALERIE BAXTER: Due to a recent divorce - you know, you find out who your friends are. And so - but they must all have something else to do today because I didn't really get any invitations for Thanksgiving this year. So I decided to come up with my own plan.

CORNISH: Tell us what those plans are.

BAXTER: I am going to go check my trap line. I just got started on a trap line with a couple of friends, and we have some trail to break. It's a brand-new area, so we have a lot of exploration to do. So I am going to do that while it's light outside, for a few hours. So, go outside and play in the snow.

CORNISH: How are you starting to reconcile the spending of the day alone? I mean, do you feel like this is a kind of opportunity?

BAXTER: Well, you know, it's kind of one of those things where while I might be physically alone, I don't really feel alone, in general. You know, my whole family will be calling me today, checking up on me and seeing how - they're doing. It's a tradition, of course. When you live this far away from your family, that's how we communicate - is, everybody calls on holidays.

CORNISH: And do you have any particular plans for your Thanksgiving meal?

BAXTER: Oh, yes. I have a duck; and I have sweet potatoes, and the typical, traditional green bean casserole and rolls. And then I've already cooked a pumpkin pie. And I'm looking forward to not having to share that entire pie.


CORNISH: Well, I have to say, I'm jealous. It sounds delicious.


BAXTER: I hope so.

CORNISH: Valerie, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BAXTER: Thank you. It was fun.

CORNISH: Valerie Baxter in Fairbanks, Alaska. Ken Cloud also answered our call. He's speaking to us from the Eastern Shore, in Maryland. And Ken, talk a little bit about how you ended up spending this Thanksgiving alone.

KEN CLOUD: Well, I have been working as a mall Santa for the past 15 years, and it just goes with the job. We begin every year at Veterans Day weekend. So when Thanksgiving rolls around, it's my one day off - out of those 45 or so days. There isn't really time to go very far from the work, so I usually end up spending it alone.

CORNISH: So you said it's your one day off. How do you like to spend it?

CLOUD: Well, this year, I'm spending it - pretty much relaxing. I went for a walk this morning for, you know, half an hour or so. Actually - had "Godfather" on, and was watching that film. It's really - the day passes quite quickly, as you might imagine.

CORNISH: Now, is it hard to be away from your family?

CLOUD: Well, of course, it is hard to be away from my family, and maybe especially this year. Today is my daughter's birthday - my oldest daughter.


CLOUD: And I've been with her, on her birthday, two out of those 15 years. And she has a 5-month-old son. So my first grandchild, I have had to be away from him - which is especially difficult. But also, you know, it's better than it used to be because of social media and frankly, the telephone. I'm in touch with a lot of people today.

CORNISH: What is it about being a Santa that makes this worth it to you, then?

CLOUD: Children. I just think that children need to have their holiday experience made special for them. I think that children need to be children as long as they can. That spirit really sustains me from being away from my family. Although it's not a replacement for my family, it is something that I'm giving back.

CORNISH: Ken, what are you going to cook for yourself today?

CLOUD: Well, you know, I took care of that yesterday. I don't have any transportation, so I - one of my helpers, on the set, stopped by the store yesterday, and I bought some food that I could prepare in my room; you know, things that I can reheat. And so I'm doing that. I'm not eating heavily, that's for sure.


CORNISH: Even though you're Santa, we won't hold that against you.


CLOUD: Well, my family and I, we know - this was coming. So the Monday before I left home, we did the whole thing: the pies - you know, the ham, turkey, the whole deal. We had a Thanksgiving dinner. It was a pretty good sendoff.

CORNISH: Well, Ken, before I let you go, did you want to say happy birthday to your daughter?

CLOUD: I do. Happy birthday to my daughter Calla(ph), who is the most incredible young woman. And to her sister, Bethany, and my wife's family, I want to say happy Thanksgiving to everyone. And you included, Audie.

CORNISH: Thanks so much, Ken, for sharing it with me.

CLOUD: It was my pleasure.

CORNISH: Ken Cloud - he spoke to us from Maryland.


CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.