My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. Christmas Day alone, I figured, would be a good test.
With the year that’s in it, I found myself alone for Christmas. It wasn’t my first Christmas away from home but given the annual mass exodus from Berlin, unstymied by Covid-19 travel restrictions, I found myself bereft of friends and plans for Christmas day.
I travelled to Berlin in full knowledge that by doing so I was sacrificing Christmas. Before leaving Ireland in late October to make the most of remote working, I warned my family I would not be coming home during Christmas break: self-isolation and testing either side morphed a five-day trip into a costly, fortnight expedition, and the Irish government had made their views on the issue as clear as day.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
It also helped that I am not overly sentimental about the holiday season. I wasn’t always this grouchy; as an imaginative child who read a lot of fantasy, I was thrilled to see the magic and mystery of storybooks playing out in real life. But once my younger brothers outgrew Santa, despite gallant efforts and fervent denial on my mother’s part, the Christmas traditions of my childhood were gradually dismantled.
Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, I was mourning an intangible loss far bigger than Santa, or even Christmas: the loss of my childhood innocence and its sincere belief that anything and everything is possible. Adulthood beckoned, and sensibility, realism and cynicism took its place.
Afterwards, particularly as a teenager, I struggled to find my footing at Christmas. By its very nature – the advent calendar countdown, the month-long hype – Christmas conditions us to have high expectations, but my inevitable disappointment made it feel like I kept falling for the same cruel trick year after year.
While I enjoyed the season’s conviviality Santa had big shoes to fill, and what remained in his absence was rather…lacklustre. The dinner was bland, the dessert inedible (anything riddled with raisins is not dessert in my book), and as a vegan, aspiring minimalist, renounced Christian, I was ethically opposed to most of the traditions that Christmas is built on. It was, I summed up, little more than a glorified Sunday roast which took a huge amount of labour to pull off. Was there some hidden meaning I was missing?
Berlin, Christmas 2020
Unsurprisingly given my feelings about the holiday, I made little effort to organize plans for Christmas Day. Once it became apparent everyone would be travelling home, I registered the news I would spend the day alone with relevant indifference. I was more concerned about how my family would receive the news, given they had been asking after my plans in every recent phone call.
The plus side of being alone at Christmas is that you are truly alone, a luxury rarely enjoyed unless you live by yourself and even more out of reach with everyone confined to their homes. I wasn’t so much counting down the days to Christmas as I was counting down the dates till my flatmates’ departure.
My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. I enjoy my own company and am not deterred by the prospect of embarking on solo adventures. Having said that, each move to a new city has been punctuated by bouts of loneliness. Christmas Day spent alone, I figured, would be a good test.
A Covid Christmas
My Christmas began with a lazy morning reading while eating one of four vegan donuts I had gifted myself. Around 10am I dragged myself out of bed and dressed to go running. I had planned to depart from my usual park route and go for a long run from Prenzlauer Berg to Mitte.
The streets were deserted save for families and the odd couple. Observing them as I ran past, I felt a momentary twinge.
Everyone appeared content, unrushed, taking simple pleasure in their morning stroll. It was the first time since Covid struck that the emptiness felt normal, the silence soothing rather than eerie. The only thing out of the ordinary was me, the interloper.
And yet, I felt entirely at peace. My chest bloomed with the conviction that I was exactly where I should be.
In a year of ceaseless oddities, this aberration was the silver lining.
My effervescent gratitude made me hungry to consume, to name the things for which I was grateful. Sprinting through the Museuminsel I marvelled at the elaborate, superfluous beauty of its architecture. I looked at the faces of the people I passed. I said hello to food delivery drivers and policemen, for whom it was just another day at the office.
As I pointed myself back in the direction of Prenzlauer Berg my phone rang. It was a video call from my mother, who had generously driven two hours to spend an allotted half hour visiting my grandaunt in a nursing home in the west of Ireland. Exercising her maternal clout, she successfully cajoled me into performing a breathless rendition of ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus’ in the middle of the Berlin streets. Not waiting around for the reviews, I continued my run home.
Her call was the first of many and between fielding calls from friends and family, I just about managed to cook and eat Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. By 10pm I was all talked out of it, ready to wind down and watch a film.
I’ll admit that seeing my family together celebrating and saying they missed me melted my icy façade ever so slightly. It was, I realised, important to know I was invited, wanted, and missed by family, even if I couldn’t be there. It made my decision to be alone a choice, rather than a lack thereof. And just like that, the hidden meaning of Christmas revealed itself.
My two weeks spent in solitude was a welcome retreat. Never in my life have I had so much free time coupled with space of my own. I had dinner with the occasional friend, but I was mostly alone, and happily so, a significant departure from my usual Christmas chock full of social obligations. If I felt my mood dip, I knew it was time to leave the house.
The experience made me think back to the times I had felt lonely in the past, both at home and abroad, under a roof shared with almost-strangers or the over-familiar.
Revisiting those periods, I realise that social isolation was only a half, and maybe even the lesser part, of my discontentment. While I used to think I felt sad because I craved the company of others, I am beginning to think its inverse was the case, that I craved solitude and the emotional space it affords.
Most societal maladies in one form or another stem from the negotiation of finite resources, with space being amongst the most coveted. This logic is implicit in the bargaining that makes up day-to-day living in shared accommodation, whose terms have becoming increasingly limited as Covid restrictions tightened.
Solitude, that is, being truly on one’s own, has been scarce for most, while those who live alone are drowning in it.
Many of our needs ordinarily met through the normal course of living in the Before Times – social interaction, time spent outdoors, emotional space – have become neglected during the pandemic. This leaves us with the difficult tasks of parsing through our muddled emotions to recognise, identify and tend to our unmet multifaceted human needs.
Knowing the difference between these distinct yet overlapping needs is an important skill, particularly amongst younger generations who are uber-connected but also report the highest rates of loneliness.
As Berlin begins to fill up once again, my days of solitude are numbered. I’m excited to re-join society but having grown protective of my time alone, I intend to find creative ways to safeguard it.