I spent last Christmas on Twitter, talking to a stranger in Germany about potatoes. It was lovely. For the first time in years, I had (virtual) company on the holiday.
I’ve always been the lonely Jew on Christmas, much like Kyle in “South Park.” Now I’m in Philadelphia, but I’ve lived in 14 cities — from Boston to Berkeley, with stints in Omaha, St. Louis and Lawrence, Kansas. Wherever I’ve lived, there’s always been the spirit of Christmas. But it’s been hard to find a place to feel like I belong as a single, childless, practicing Jew whose family is far away.
Most of the people I know spend the holidays with their families. I’ve usually volunteered to work so that someone who celebrated Christmas could have the day off. I once went to a Matzo Ball, a Jewish singles dance, on Christmas Eve. Sometimes I’ve volunteered.
But as I’ve gotten older and my friends got married and had kids, they’ve focused inward and my holiday has become me, myself and I.
Then last year, posts started popping up on my Twitter feed about the #JoinIn movement. Several years ago British comedian Sarah Millican started the #JoinIn hashtag on Twitter. The goal was to connect people on Christmas who might feel lonely on the holiday. By tagging their tweets with #JoinIn, people could find others looking to chat about soccer or the best chocolate or simply exchange season’s greetings.
According to the General Social Survey, the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has tripled since the 1980s. In fact, “zero” is the most popular response when asked how many confidants they have. In England, the loneliness epidemic is so severe that the government created a minster of loneliness.
Millican just might be Twitter’s unofficial minister of Christmas loneliness. In a column for Standard Issue magazine, she said she the goal of #JoinIn was to create a community for those who are “alone and would rather not be." That could be "because they have no family, are estranged from their family, it’s not their turn to have the kids, even just that their partner is at work, whatever,” she wrote.
Adem Waterman, a radio producer in London, usually spends the day with his mom and extended family in Manchester. But the past two years, he’s worked Christmas Day and has chatted with strangers online for an hour or so, through the #JoinIn hashtag. He doesn’t feel particularly lonely, he said, but it’s nice to keep people company.
It’s easy to think that everyone’s holiday is far more fabulous by looking at pictures online. However, Waterman says, “we fight, we drink, we laugh and we go to bed angry at each other, just like most families.”
He said he thinks the surge of loneliness is partially due to the fact that we don’t have to leave our homes much anymore, particularly in large cities like London. “Your community is your house,” he said. “Everyone’s got TiVo, you can get your shopping delivered, your clothes delivered, no one has to leave anymore to get things done. And when there’s no need to go out, you don’t speak to anyone and you start to lose your sense of community.”
Events like #JoinIn are examples of how social media can be used for good, said Kory Floyd, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona. Floyd, author of the book, “The Loneliness Cure,” said loneliness can seem worse around the holidays, even when surrounded by family and friends, if someone feels that no one understands them.
Floyd said one of the challenges of feeling lonely is that when people feel alone, they tend to isolate themselves more, and feel that things will never improve. Events like a simple Twitter campaign allow people to reach out to someone else, which is one of the best ways to ease loneliness. “It may not be comfortable or easy, but it’s extremely effective,” Floyd said. “Just to be part of a conversation like #JoinIn, it teaches you that you don’t have to stay in that isolated state, that you can improve your own station in life.”
Last year I signed on about 4 p.m. on Christmas Day and started chatting with a “technical architect” named David Ashwood who lives in Berlin. First we talked about the weather, about cooking for one, about our joint love of all things potatoes (me mashed, his in salad form.)
I was playing Depeche Mode in the background; he was listening to Pet Shop Boys. We talked about the struggle of keeping a balance and pretending everything is easy.
Just following the hashtag, I dropped in on chats about socks, holiday traditions, terrible presents and bad dates. In about an hour, I’d connected with six or seven people. It was like sitting behind someone at a diner and listening in on their every-day conversations.
One thing Floyd said particularly struck home. Being lonely isn’t a disease or a disorder, it’s a normal part of the experience of being human.
“It reminds us how important meaningful social connection is in our lives,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we need a huge cadre of friends. Some people like myself thrive on having one or two people I feel I connect with. And when I feel lonely, it’s like being hungry — it reminds me that I’m missing something I value.”
I no longer feel like such a lonely Jew on Christmas anymore. If you’re alone on the holiday, for whatever reason and wherever you are, tag me at @dfallik on Twitter. Bring your best potato recipe.
Dawn Fallik is a Philadelphia-based medical reporter and an associate professor at the University of Delaware. She is working on a book about the medical consequences of chronic loneliness.