You can find the true joy of Christmas—with or without a family.

I was living in San Francisco, and I was poor. Airfare home to Wyoming for Christmas was out of the question, and I didn’t have the vacation days to make the 1,200-mile drive. Then, too, I “sort of” had a boyfriend with whom I “sort of” wanted to spend Christmas.

My two solicitous roommates had left mounds of goodies and a comforting tree before they went off to Idaho and Nevada to their families. I figured that Christmas without my family couldn’t be so bad; I managed without seeing my family for most of the other days of the year. And I was, after all, mature and independent.

Two days before Christmas, the bishop called with an offer from an anonymous ward member of round-trip airfare home for Christmas. Embarrassed and overly proud, I turned him down. In doing so, I believe, I denied and repressed something about Christmas that I am trying even now to recover—something that has to do with childhood and dependence and joy.

As one who remained single into my mid-thirties, with out-of-state nephews and nieces, I did not experience any child’s Christmas except my own. When the childhood fantasy faded, so too did a good part of the delight. True, adults are supposed to supplant the glee of getting with the glow of giving, but I’d been taught that giving should be more constant. I always felt a tinge of hypocrisy doing it mainly at Christmas. I have enjoyed and benefited from the high-intensity Christmas spotlight on the Savior, but it has been a long time since Christmas has conjured magic or mystery for me. The absence of those feelings—when others seemed to be feeling them—has made me a little wistful at Christmas.

I have now and then suspected a relationship between my Christmas blahs and my single state. Marriage does not automatically ban the blahs, of course, but children or a spouse require a concentration on others and can create a group dynamic that feeds the fun. In marriage, sometimes, Christmas builds naturally; when you’re single, it takes more work. I have concluded that Christmas has not always “worked” for me because I have not worked for Christmas.

After considerable discussion with and observation of single people whose Christmases seem especially rich, I would like to suggest three things that can turn the season from a frenzied anticlimax into a celebration of wonder and faith. These three things are laughter, connection, and grace.

Laughter is therapy. It is diversion, if only momentary, from pain and problems. But it is more, too. If you’re laughing with others, it’s a joining that defeats isolation, even if briefly. Christmas allows laughter as few other holidays do. Fanciful Christmas stories, Christmas traditions, and Christmas music are designed to delight and cheer. Something in us all, child or adult, needs an occasional celebration—even mild abandonment. At Christmas, let yourself laugh.

How? It’s rarely accomplished alone, but it can start with simply remembering your own childhood giddiness. Then ask for a hand in planning the family get-together, or throw a party for friends. Build a crazy figure out of snow together. Make a game out of opening presents. One single woman, now forty, reports that since childhood she, her two older brothers, and her parents have danced through the house in their nightclothes to the tune of the Chipmunks’ Christmas song, before opening their presents on Christmas morning. They still do it. “It was crazy then, but it’s hilarious now,” she grins. “My parents are almost eighty.”

You could take the initiative in launching a gag gift tradition. There are many possible variations. One family, for example, recycles a purple dime-store vase yearly. Each successive giver comes up with a creative delivery or packaging idea. One year it was baked inside a cake, the next year delivered by a pizza man, the next year sent C.O.D.

The gag gift might be tailored to one family member’s particular tastes or habits. “We’ve teased my uncle for years about his dog, whom he treats like a son,” one single woman reports. “So one year at the family Christmas party, we presented him with a Dog Baby Book, one year with a high chair for the dog. He now looks forward to a new dog accoutrement each year, and we’ve all had great fun.” Another single woman presented her artist-brother with a large painting which, she explained to him, the whole family had purchased at a famous artists’ colony. In reality, the family had created the “masterpiece,” with each person taking a turn daubing paint on a blank canvas. “My brother’s reaction was priceless as he struggled to thank us both honestly and tactfully,” she recalls.

Laughter fills loneliness, builds bonds, and pares down pain.

Fully enjoying the Christmas wonder is impossible without a meaningful connection with someone else. This is because the wonder comes from God; we feel it as we feel his spirit. And we give to and accept from God as we give to and accept from others. Paradoxically, in giving to others we acknowledge a need for them—a need to express our religious feelings in service, a need to touch and be touched. Giving, then, can actually be an act of gratitude and celebration.

Like laughter, the meaningful giver-receiver connection can come more easily and naturally in a family setting. For singles, especially those without easy access to parents, siblings, or children, creating the connection may mean reaching beyond the family unit. Establishing this connection requires focusing thoughtfully on the people around you, becoming more sensitive to them. It almost always involves some time; it rarely involves much money.

One single man who is particularly disenchanted with the commercialism of Christmas sits down with his calendar at the beginning of December and comes up with a “Dream List of Good Things to Do for People.” He then picks a person for each week in December and acts out the dream—taking the elderly mother of an out-of-state friend to a concert, leaving a Christmas tree on the doorstep of struggling young marrieds, inviting an acquaintance who is new in town home for Christmas dinner.

One Christmas when I was living in Salt Lake City I participated in a memorable “connection” exercise with three or four other single friends. The day before Christmas, we selected strategic spots in one of the visitors’ centers on Temple Square and mingled with the tourists. Our plan was to find people to invite to the next day’s Christmas dinner. It worked. We found a family from Michigan on a skiing holiday in Utah. They were not needy or lonely, but they were pleased at the prospect of a home-cooked meal, carols around the piano, and a cozy fireplace. They looked us over, decided we were trustworthy, and agreed to come home with us. The next day’s dinner was a great success, leaving us all with memories of having given and received in a new way.

Involvement in the lives of nephews, nieces, or other children colors the giving with a child’s holiday excitement. One single woman tries to spend each Christmas with a brother’s or sister’s family and always has a hand in planning the family party and program. One year she conducted an audio scavenger hunt. She divided family members into two groups, armed each with a small tape recorder, and required each group to get certain things on tape: Grandma reciting her favorite nursery rhyme, someone reading the scripture giving Mary’s genealogy, someone singing the third verse of “Silent Night” or the second verse of “Book of Mormon Stories.” The whole family participated, and it meant that the children were sometimes teaching the adults.

Another single woman has for several years anonymously given small gifts during the twelve days preceding Christmas to someone who seems particularly discouraged. One year it was a nonmember friend going through a divorce. Another year it was a reclusive older man in her singles ward. Another year it was the widow next door. The next year it was the widower who lived on the other side of the widow. (The widower suspected the widow, and thanked her with an effusive sign in his window! The entire apartment complex was interested.) The woman has quietly watched her recipients add a little hope, a little confidence, a little joy to their lives because of her actions.

I have called the third element of Christmas wonder, grace. It seems the best word to describe the virtually inexpressible phenomenon of personal awareness of the love of God. On occasion, Christmas has functioned for me a little like the temple—I feel myself in a holy time, a holy space. Even though the Savior was not actually born at this calendar spot, there seems to be a surge in the heaven-to-earth power line now, and the whole world strains fractionally upward. It is a fragile feeling, easily missed if we are occupied elsewhere. To tap this ethereal electricity, I suggest, first, an effort toward belief at Christmas. This involves a simple giving up to God, a relinquishing of our own expectations and fiercely held wants, whether for Christmas or beyond. It means acknowledgment of love and joy and peace as more than concepts or card captions. It means accepting the divine gift that is offered.

I suggest, also, preparing a place for the wonder to come. Simplify your Christmas. Resist giving showy, expensive gifts or elaborate dinners. Don’t program yourself into too many office parties or church programs or time-consuming projects. A single friend of mine spent last Christmas in Germany with her sister’s family. Stores and commercial entertainments were closed for two and one-half days for the holiday. “The world contracted,” she remembers, “to just the size of the family and close friends. The result was more simplicity, more peace.”

I suggest, too, as both a conduit and a creator of the wonder, Christmas music. Whether or not you are a musician, you can feel more intensely through music. At Christmas, the impulse can be either cantata or calypso, from choirs or carolers. It can be golden rivulets of quartet voices filtering through department stores, or cascades of organs and church bells sifting down the sky. Music is as irrepressible and essential for Christmas now as it was for the angels on both sides of the veil who sang their joy in Bethlehem. If you can sing, if you can hear, you can enjoy Christmas.

The grace of Christmas, then, is a legacy of love from God. The wonder is that it is a legacy celebrated; it is not just private joy—though it can be that—but it is also passed around, shouted out, shared. It is this grace that transforms passing laughter into solid joy, and annual giving into healing connections. There is no greater mystery, no greater magic, than this love.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cindy Spencer

Elizabeth Shaw Smith, an attorney, is the music chairman and teaches Gospel Doctrine in the Irvine (California) Third Ward.