The joy of Christmas (alone): So what did you do for Christmas? Pretend to
like your stepmum's present? Eat too much rich food? Humour your drunken uncle?
Or watch appalling TV? Julian Baggini decided to skip all that this year -
and, like the millions of

The Guardian - United Kingdom
Dec 28, 2004

At 7.45am on Christmas morning I awoke at the Ibis Heathrow Airport
hotel. I could look forward to a continental-style breakfast buffet, a
few hours in my room, many more hanging around Heathrow terminal three
and, finally, an eight-hour flight to New York, arriving just in time
to go to sleep for the final few minutes of my 29-hour day. And all of
this I would do alone.

Spending Christmas alone is usually assumed to be a bad thing. Mine
may sound to you desperately sad, all too reminiscent of that
tragicomic icon of modern male inadequacy, Alan Partridge. But when
the Women's Royal Voluntary Service reported that nearly half a
million older people would spend Christmas by themselves, no one asked
how large a minority were relieved not to have to bother with it any
more. My experience of this ultimate anti-Christmas, and those of the
other festive refuseniks I met along the way, suggests that any pity
or mockery is displaced. Envy might be more appropriate.

The cabbie who took me to the hotel on Christmas Eve was certainly
more than happy to be working the next day. Apart from the large
number of "wheelchair jobs" resulting from non-emergency ambulance
crews taking their holidays, there were lots of people who by early
evening were "desperate to get out", he said, making the West End and
Knightsbridge in particular surprisingly busy. After all, what else
would he be doing, with no wife or kids to be with? "I'd be down the
pub talking a load of old rubbish with my mates," he said.

I got to the hotel to find it about two-thirds empty. I checked in and
headed for the bar, where I was served by Vazken. He wasn't over the
moon to have another shift the next day, but as an Armenian Orthodox
Christian, his Christmas is on January 6 anyway, so it was no big
deal. According to the last census, 28% of the UK population - among
them 1.5 million Muslims - is not Christian at all. With more than
one-quarter of the population with no reason to see the 25th as
special, why should it be strange not to celebrate it?

Indeed, I was to meet many more non-Christians, including the Muslim
cashier at the Travelex foreign exchange counter, who thought it was
"brilliant" to be working on Christmas day because of the extra pay;
and Mohamed, the waiter who served me my Christmas lunch, which we
will come to later. It was as though, for one day only, the sizeable
non-Christian minority got to run the country.

Another of Vazken's customers on Christmas Eve was Margaret. Like me,
her official reason for spending the night alone at the Ibis was that
she would save money by flying out to America on the afternoon of the
25th, when the fares were half the price. This wasn't the whole story,
however, since Margaret had made a habit of organising her trips to
avoid the traditional Christmas trappings. I asked her why.

Margaret did have some family hassles she wanted to get away from. But
her choice was more positive than simply being one of simple
avoidance. She was refusing to either go along with something that
would make her miserable, or to sit on the sidelines and get
depressed. She had taken charge and organised a trip that would make
her happy. This wasn't bluff or bravado. In the bar on Christmas Eve
she was gregarious good company, enjoying a drink with other
seasonally spirited guests with no trace of the desperate race to
alcoholic oblivion typical of many so-called Yuletide
celebrations. Margaret was making her Christmas a success - more of a
success, I daresay, than many more traditional family gatherings.

Indeed, it is telling how her friends and family reacted when she told
them what she would be doing. "They say it's great," she told me. "The
word that best describes their reaction is envy."

That was just what I found when I told people that I had extended a
conference trip so that I would have some spare time in New York at
the expense of Christmas Day with family. The idea of getting away
from the cooking, the excessive drinking, crap TV and inevitable
family tension is one that almost everyone found beguiling.

Those I left behind, even if they had managed to plan a day they would
be happy with, had more often than not been forced to negotiate all
sorts of family politics, usually hurting or disappointing at least
someone in the process.

That is what I think explained the curiously good-natured atmosphere
in the hotel bar, which to a casual observer would have looked
soulless, about as festive as a curry made from three-day-old
turkey. We could enjoy Christmas more than ever precisely because, by
choosing to skip it, we had freed ourselves from the burdens of
expectation that stand in the way of relaxed pleasure.

I checked out of the hotel at 11.30am on Christmas Day and made my way
to Heathrow, where I had six hours to kill. For many of the airport's
70,000 staff, like the nearly one million people the TUC estimates
work on Christmas Day, it was business as usual. Although only around
a third of the 180,000 passengers a day who pass through the airport
over the holiday period do so on the 25th itself, staffing levels are
more or less the same.

This very normality is what makes an airport the ideal place for the
Christmas escapee. In homes and streets across Britain, the things
that make Christmas different - from the special TV shows to the
closed shops and the eerily quiet streets - all serve as constant
reminders of what everyone else is doing that day. At Heathrow,
however, you soon forget what it is you're not doing. Christmas
really does disappear.

I decided to get check-in and security out of the way and spend my
time in the hermetically sealed world beyond passport control. As I
really wasn't trying to be a total humbug, I then sought out the best
meal Heathrow had to offer, only to find that nowhere was serving a
Christmas lunch. Surprisingly, however, it wasn't then a toss-up
between McDonalds, Garfunkels and an absurdly priced seafood and
champagne bar. I sat down to a perfectly decent lunch at Chez Gerard,
part of a mid-market brasserie chain.

Any attempt to inject a bit of class was somewhat diminished by the
sign on the table informing me that "due to security reasons, we can
only provide plastic cutlery with your meal". Still, the tuna nicoise
went down well, and despite the unseasonal advice I had seen posted
all over Boots to avoid alcohol and caffeine before a flight, I
figured that a festive glass of wine and Irish coffee had plenty of
time to work their way through my system. It may not have been the
best Christmas lunch I had ever had, but nor was it the worst. And
being able to walk afterwards was a real bonus.

Lunch consumed, I renewed my efforts to track down tragic sole
travellers. David from New York had managed to arrange a day even
more humbuggish than mine: he had left the US on Christmas Eve and
would not be arriving at his final destination, Bombay, until 8.30am
on Boxing Day. He was travelling "to one member of my family and away
from a lot more. I am missing out on some things, but I'm gaining so
much more."

Another solo traveller, Martin, was going to New York to be with his
girlfriend, a flight attendant with Virgin who was working on
Christmas Day. He too thought his friends were "quite envious,
actually" and said: "I'd rather be away from it, to be
honest. Christmas is overhyped."

On the plane, I found myself sitting next to yet another lone
traveller. "Christmas has lost its meaning," she said. "It's become
too commercial." But it transpired she had a more personal reason for
taking her trip on this of all days. Over Christmas last year, her
husband left her for one of her friends, and her young son would be
spending the holidays with him. "It hasn't been a good year," she said
with understatement. She was happy to get away and spend some time
with friends in New York.

Yet even this woman deserves more respect than pity. Running away from
problems has a bad name, but as any expert in self-defence will tell
you, sometimes running away is precisely the right thing to do. What
this woman was doing was defiant and positive. "I feel I'm one step
ahead," she said, somewhat cryptically.

Perhaps what she meant was that by refusing to have a miserable
Christmas alone or accepting an invitation to share someone else's,
which would never really be hers, she had defied the expectations of
those who think there is only one right way to celebrate, one they may
not enjoy, but feel obliged to enact.

There's nothing wrong with a good family gathering at Christmas for
those who have a family arrangement that allows it, an opportunity to
make it happen and a cultural background that makes Christmas mean
something. But if we're honest, there are many people who don't fit
this mould. They should not be made to feel like like social pariahs
for opting out of the traditional Christmas, or any other widely
observed celebration. It is much sadder to attempt to cobble together
a traditional Christmas from pieces that don't fit than to throw them
all away and do something completely different instead.

On New Year's Eve, another trial of enforced jollity, I will be
raising a glass to my fellow Christmas refuseniks who dealt with their
situations with honesty and defiance. And I'll be doing it at
35,000ft, on my way back from New York, avoiding yet another
celebration that some see as unmissable. If you feel pity, there's no
need. And if you feel envy, there's still time to do something about

Julian Baggini is the editor and co-publisher of the Philosophers'
Magazine, and the author of What's It All About? Philosophy and the
Meaning of Life, published by Granta.

Loneliness of the long-distance traveller . . . Baggini whiles away
the time in the lobby of the Ibis Hotel, Heathrow Airport

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress