This year, for the first time in my life, I was faced with the prospect of being alone on Christmas Day. I have no doubt it will not be the last time. My children will fly to new nests in far-away places, my friends and family will gradually leave this world or become too frail to travel. Being alone, often for extended periods of time, is characteristic of elderly life. I look forward twenty years and realise that much of my future will be spent alone.
I choose my words carefully. I said "alone". I did not say "lonely". Being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely.
At Christmas we assume that anyone who is alone must of course be lonely. There are campaigns to persuade people to visit elderly neighbours and take them to jolly Christmas parties at special centres for the elderly. Personally I can't think of anything worse than spending three hours in a hall full of total strangers being patronised by well-meaning youngsters determined to ensure that I "have a good time". Or, for that matter, spending an hour in the company of a neighbour that I don't know, because she hasn't spoken to me the rest of the year, and with whom I have nothing in common. I would be far lonelier in such company than I would be in my own home with music, books, a telephone and, above all, memories. And I would resent having to be grateful to such people for showing me the "kindness" of disturbing my aloneness.
Loneliness is the state of having no real relationships. Fake, transient episodes of "company" for the sake of "human contact" are no substitute for the real thing. For me, the relationships I have with authors through their words, with composers and performers through music and with my family and friends over the telephone or through my memories are more real than anything that can be created by strangers in a couple of hours. I suppose I have always been comfortable with my own company, and what works for me would not work for everyone. There are no doubt people for whom the prospect of being alone at Christmas is indeed terrible. But we should not assume that that applies to everyone.
Nor should we assume that because someone is in the company of family and friends that they are not lonely. The woman whose husband sits and reads the paper, or watches the television, or surfs the net while she prepares dinner.....who says not a word to her while they eat, then leaves her to the dishwashing while he returns to whatever he was doing before. She may be lonelier in the company of her husband than the elderly lady next door whose husband died ten years ago. Or the family at war among themselves, whose conversation is only of trivial things, who substitute presents for love and who guard their feelings for fear of being hurt. Or the people who are embarrassed to share anything about the pathetic reality of their lives so put on a good show to impress their "friends". Are these people not lonely? Are they not, in reality, perhaps lonelier than those who we assume must be lonely simply because they are alone?
But why is being alone at Christmas apparently so much more terrible than being lonely the rest of the year? Why do we put in the effort at Christmas to speak to neighbours that we otherwise ignore? Why do we send Christmas cards to family and friends that we don't bother to speak to from one year-end to the next? There is nothing in the Christmas story to justify such obsession with transient human contact and presents as symbolic restitution for the love and care that we withhold the rest of the time.
We have come to believe that Christmas is a time for being with family and friends, for parties and socialising. Shops sell party clothes and party food. Being alone seems terrible when everyone around you is apparently having the perfect party, spending time with the people they love, who love them. But is this really what is happening - or is this just the show we put on to hide the hollowness and unreality of our lives?
The Christian festival of Christmas celebrates God made man, come among us to die. Among the presents that Jesus is given is myrrh, used for embalming corpses. And in our secular Christmas, too, there is death. More marriages end at Christmas than at any other time of year. More people get into serious financial difficulty at Christmas than at any other time of year. More people commit suicide at Christmas than at any other time of year. It seems that in our expectation of the perfect party we substitute transient contact for real relationship, and when we fail to achieve our expectation the shallowness of our desire is exposed and we are left with nothing but despair. At the heart of our parties and socialising is loneliness, emptiness and a desperate search for love.
In the end, this year I was not alone. My children decided to spend Christmas with me. So I don't know if I would have been lonely. No doubt I will find that out at some time in the future. We are all lonely at some time in our lives. And we can be just as lonely among people as we can when alone. "Human contact" alone is not enough. It is the quality of our relationships that matters - and that is born not from trivial conversation on one day in the year, but from care and concern for each other day in, day out throughout the year. When we know we are really loved by the people closest to us, we can be alone at Christmas without being lonely.
There are indeed many lonely people at Christmas. But many of them are not alone. Do you notice them?