Single during the Holidays


Staff Reports

The Conversation

Single during the holidays? It doesn’t mean being lonely or alone

December 20, 2018

More and more Americans are choosing to be single.


Elizabeth Brake

Associate Professor of Philosophy, Arizona State University

Disclosure statement

Elizabeth Brake has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada).


Arizona State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

As the holiday season starts, singles may face questions from friends and family: “When are you getting serious about dating?”

In many families, seasonal festivities draw lines between who’s coupled and who’s not. Romantic partners are invited to holiday meals, included in family photographs, and seen as potential life mates – while “mere” friends are not. These practices draw a line between relationships seen as significant – and those which aren’t.

As I’ve argued in my research on the ethics and politics of the family, these practices reflect widespread assumptions. One is that everyone is seeking a romantic relationship. The second is more value-laden: living in a long-term romantic, sexual partnership is better than living without one. This fuels beliefs that those living solo are less happy, or lonelier, than couples.

These assumptions are so prevalent that they guide many social interactions. But research shows they’re false.

Why more Americans are living single

The truth is that more Americans are living unmarried and without a romantic partner. In 2005, the census for the first time recorded a majority of women living outside of marriage Although, of course, some unmarried women have romantic partners.

By 2010, married couples became a minority in the United States. The percentage of unmarried adults is at an all-time high, with more young adults choosing to live unmarried and without a romantic partner.

Personal finances likely plays a role in such choices. Millennials are worse off than earlier generations. There is a proven connection between economic resources and marriage rates – what legal scholar Linda McClain calls “the other marriage equality problem.” Lower incomes correlate with lower rates of marriage.

But changing family patterns are not simply the result of financial instability. They reflect choices: Not everyone wants romantic partnership and many singles see solo life as more conducive to flourishing and autonomy.

Single by choice

As I show in my book “Minimizing Marriage,” people have many different political or ethical reasons for preferring singlehood.

Some women become single mothers by choice. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild has argued, marriage brings extra work for women, making it less attractive than single life for some.

For other people, being single is simply a relationship preference or even an orientation. For example, there are those, referred to as “asexuals” and “aromantics,” who lack interest in sexual and romantic relationships.

Who are asexuals and aromantics?

Data from a 1994 British survey of more than 18,000 people showed 1 percent of the respondents to be asexual. Because asexuality is still little-known, some asexuals might not identify as such. And so, it’s possible that the true numbers could be higher.

Asexuals are people who do not feel sexual attraction. Asexuality is not simply the behavior of abstaining from sex, but an orientation. Just as straight people feel sexual attraction to members of a different sex, and gays and lesbians feel attraction to members of the same sex, asexuals simply do not feel sexual attraction. Asexuals can have romantic feelings, wanting a life partner to share intimate moments with and even cuddle – but without sexual feelings.

But some asexuals are also aromantic, that is, not interested in romantic relationships. Like asexuality, aromanticism is an orientation. Aromantics may have sexual feelings or be asexual, but they do not have romantic feelings. Both asexuals and aromantics face a lack of understanding.

Angela Chen, a journalist writing a book about asexuality, reports that her asexual interview subjects suffered from a lack of information about asexuality. As they failed to develop sexual attractions during puberty – while their classmates did – they asked themselves, “Am I normal? Is something wrong with me?”

But while asexuality is sometimes misunderstood as a medical disorder, there are many differences between an asexual orientation and a medical disorder causing a low sex drive. When asexuals are treated as “abnormal” by doctors or therapists, it does them a disservice.

Since the early 2000s, asexuals have exchanged ideas and organized through online groups. One such group, The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, for example, promotes the understanding that lack of sexual attraction is normal for asexuals, and lack of romantic feelings is normal for aromantics.

Asexuals, like aromantics, challenge the expectation that everyone wants a romantic, sexual partnership. They don’t. Nor do they believe that they would be better off with one.

Single and alone – or lonely?

Far from the stereotype of the lonely single, lifelong singles are less lonely than other older people, according to psychologist Bella DePaulo, the author of “Singled Out.” Nor are singles alone.

Many singles have close friendships which are just as valuable as romantic partnerships. But assumptions that friendships are less significant than romantic partnerships hide their value.

Understanding the reasons people have for remaining single might help to handle family stresses. If you’re single, you could take unwanted questioning as a teachable moment. If you’re the friend or family member of someone who tells you they’re happily single – believe them.

The Conversation

A sacred light in the darkness: Winter solstice illuminations at Spanish missions

Updated December 10, 2018


Rubén G. Mendoza

Chair/Professor, Division of Social, Behavioral & Global Studies, California State University, Monterey Bay

Disclosure statement

Rubén G. Mendoza has previously received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a charter board member of the California Missions Foundation. He is affiliated with the Archaeology Program of the Division of Social, Behavioral & Global Studies at CSU Monterey Bay.

On Friday, Dec. 21, nations in the Northern Hemisphere will mark the winter solstice – the shortest day and longest night of the year. For thousands of years people have marked this event with rituals and celebrations to signal the rebirth of the sun and its victory over darkness.

At hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of missions stretching from northern California to Peru, the winter solstice sun triggers an extraordinarily rare and fascinating event – something that I discovered by accident and first documented in one California church 20 years ago.

At dawn on Dec. 21, a sunbeam enters each of these churches and bathes an important religious object, altar, crucifix or saint’s statue in brilliant light. On the darkest day of the year, these illuminations conveyed to native converts the rebirth of light, life and hope in the coming of the Messiah. Largely unknown for centuries, this recent discovery has sparked international interest in both religious and scientific circles. At missions that are documented illumination sites, congregants and Amerindian descendants now gather to honor the sun in the church on the holiest days of the Catholic liturgy with songs, chants and drumming.

I have since trekked vast stretches of the U.S. Southwest, Mexico and Central America to document astronomically and liturgically significant solar illuminations in mission churches. These events offer us insights into archaeology, cosmology and Spanish colonial history. As our own December holidays approach, they demonstrate the power of our instincts to guide us through the darkness toward the light.

Spreading the Catholic faith

The 21 California missions were established between 1769 and 1823 by Spanish Franciscans, based in Mexico City, to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. Each mission was a self-sufficient settlement with multiple buildings, including living quarters, storerooms, kitchens, workshops and a church. Native converts provided the labor to build each mission complex, supervised by Spanish friars. The friars then conducted masses at the churches for indigenous communities, sometimes in their native languages.

Spanish friars like Fray Gerónimo Boscana also documented indigenous cosmologies and beliefs. Boscana’s account of his time as a friar describes California Indians’ belief in a supreme deity who was known to the peoples of Mission San Juan Capistrano as Chinigchinich or Quaoar.

As a culture hero, Indian converts identified Chinigchinich with Jesus during the Mission period. His appearance among Takic-speaking peoples coincides with the death of Wiyot, the primeval tyrant of the first peoples, whose murder introduced death into the world. And it was the creator of night who conjured the first tribes and languages, and in so doing, gave birth to the world of light and life.

Hunting and gathering peoples and farmers throughout the Americas recorded the transit of the solstice sun in both rock art and legend. California Indians counted the phases of the moon and the dawning of both the equinox and solstice suns in order to anticipate seasonally available wild plants and animals. For agricultural peoples, counting days between the solstice and equinox was all-important to scheduling the planting and harvesting of crops. In this way, the light of the sun was identified with plant growth, the creator and thereby the giver of life.

Discovering illuminations

I first witnessed an illumination in the church at Mission San Juan Bautista, which straddles the great San Andreas Fault and was founded in 1797. The mission is also located a half-hour drive from the high-tech machinations of San Jose and the Silicon Valley. Fittingly, visiting the Old Mission on a fourth grade field trip many years earlier sparked my interest in archaeology and the history and heritage of my American Indian forebears.

On Dec. 12, 1997, the parish priest at San Juan Bautista informed me that he had observed a spectacular solar illumination of a portion of the main altar in the mission church. A group of pilgrims observing the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe had asked to be admitted to the church early that morning. When the pastor entered the sanctuary, he saw an intense shaft of light traversing the length of the church and illuminating the east half of the altar. I was intrigued, but at the time I was studying the mission’s architectural history and assumed that this episode was unrelated to my work. After all, I thought, windows project light into the darkened sanctuaries of the church throughout the year.

One year later, I returned to San Juan Bautista on the same day, again early in the morning. An intensely brilliant shaft of light entered the church through a window at the center of the facade and reached to the altar, illuminating a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe on her Feast Day in an unusual rectangle of light. As I stood in the shaft of light and looked back at the sun framed at the epicenter of the window, I couldn’t help but feel what many describe when, in the course of a near death experience, they see the light of the great beyond.

Only afterward did I connect this experience to the church’s unusual orientation, on a bearing of 122 degrees east of north – three degrees offset from the mission quadrangle’s otherwise square footprint. Documentation in subsequent years made it clear that the building’s positioning was not random. The Mutsun Indians of the mission had once revered and feared the dawning of the winter solstice sun. At this time, they and other groups held raucous ceremonies that were intended to make possible the resurrection of the dying winter sun.

Several years later, while I was working on an archaeological investigation at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, I realized that the church at this site also was skewed off kilter from the square quadrangle around it – in this case, about 12 degrees. I eventually confirmed that the church was aligned to illuminate during the midsummer solstice, which occurs on June 21.

Next I initiated a statewide survey of the California mission sites. The first steps were to review the floor plans of the latest church structures on record, analyze historic maps and conduct field surveys of all 21 missions to identify trajectories of light at each site. Next we established the azimuth so as to determine whether each church building was oriented toward astronomically significant events, using sunrise and sunset data.

This process revealed that 14 of the 21 California missions were sited to produce illuminations on solstices or equinoxes. We also showed that the missions of San Miguel Arcángel and San José were oriented to illuminate on the Catholic Feast Days of Saint Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4) and Saint Joseph (March 19), respectively.

Soon thereafter, I found that 18 of the 22 mission churches of New Mexico were oriented to the all-important vernal or autumnal equinox, used by the Pueblo Indians to signal the agricultural season. My research now spans the American hemisphere, and recent findings by associates have extended the count of confirmed sites as far south as Lima, Peru. To date, I have identified some 60 illumination sites throughout the western United States, Mexico and South America.

Melding light with faith

It is striking to see how Franciscans were able to site and design structures that would produce illuminations, but an even more interesting question is why they did so. Amerindians, who previously worshiped the sun, identified Jesus with the sun. The friars reinforced this idea via teachings about the cristo helios, or “solar Christ” of early Roman Christianity.

Anthropologist Louise Burkhart’s studies affirm the presence of the “Solar Christ” in indigenous understandings of Franciscan teachings. This conflation of indigenous cosmologies with the teachings of the early Church readily enabled the Franciscans to convert followers across the Americas. Moreover, calibrations of the movable feast days of Easter and Holy Week were anchored to the Hebrew Passover, or the crescent new moon closest to the vernal equinox. Proper observance of Easter and Christ’s martyrdom therefore depended on the Hebrew count of days, which was identified with both the vernal equinox and the solstice calendar.

Orienting mission churches to produce illuminations on the holiest days of the Catholic calendar gave native converts the sense that Jesus was manifest in the divine light. When the sun was positioned to shine on the church altar, neophytes saw its rays illuminate the ornately gilded tabernacle container, where Catholics believe that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. In effect, they beheld the apparition of the Solar Christ.

The winter solstice, coinciding with both the ancient Roman festival of Sol Invictus (unconquered sun) and the Christian birth of Christ, heralded the shortest and darkest time of the year. For the California Indian, it presaged fears of the impending death of the sun. At no time was the sun in the church more powerful than on that day each year, when the birth of Christ signaled the birth of hope and the coming of new light into the world.

The Conversation

As the opioid epidemic continues, the holidays bring need to support those in grief

December 20, 2018


Emily B. Campbell

Visiting Lecturer of Sociology, College of the Holy Cross

Disclosure statement

Emily B. Campbell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


College of the Holy Cross provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

For all the warm memories and goodwill shared during the holiday season, for many it is a time of acute grief. The American opioid crisis is rightfully understood as the worst public health crisis in American history, killing over 70,000 people last year alone. Behind the statistics are the private, aching pains for loved ones lost.

As part of my research on grief in the American opioid epidemic, I attended over 30 community events, vigils and support group meetings, and interviewed 23 mothers whose children died of an opioid overdose. These experiences give me insights into how to care for those dealing with the loss of a loved one to addiction or overdose.

Be quiet and listen

For many who know someone who has lost a loved one, it can be hard to know what to say or how to respond. Conversely, for those who have lost a love one, the silence can be deafening.

If you want to be supportive, consider your relationship to the person and the deceased and find an opportunity to approach the person one-on-one. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Listen and affirm. Let the person know you are willing to lend an ear. If someone takes you up on your offer, stop what you are doing and listen. Put away your cellphone or other distractions and focus on your interaction with that person. Allow them to speak and listen, without jumping to offer advice or talk about yourself. Losing someone you love is painful. Letting people express their feelings without feeling judged or corrected can be very powerful. Simple phrases like “I hear you” offer validation.

Give the gift of time. Grief can be a very isolating experience, so spending time with others is important. One mother described being taken out to lunch by her late son’s friends on the one-year anniversary of his death. Their time together affirmed that her son was loved and missed by others and helped change an unbearable day into something else.

Names matter. One of the things that came up time and again from mothers who had lost their children to overdose was missing the sound of their child’s name. One mother explained the change from hearing and saying her son’s name many times a day to not hearing it spoken at all. For her, the difference between, “I’m sorry for the loss of your son” and “I’m sorry for the loss of Jim” is profound.

If you have a fond memory of the person, share it. Many describe the joy of hearing about their loved one from others that knew them. One mother shared a card that a former teacher had written to her after her son’s death. They had not interacted for many years, and knowing her son was remembered by this person was deeply comforting.

A person is more than their cause of death. The often tragic and dramatic nature of a fatal overdose can sometimes overshadow the person’s life. This is also true for alcohol-related deaths and suicide. It’s important to remember that each person had a life history, a sense of humor and hope for the future. An entire life is not defined merely by how it ends.

If you can’t say it, try writing. If you don’t know how to approach the person or know what to say, consider writing an email or sending a card. This form of support can open up future conversations and does not put anyone directly on the spot. It can simply say, “Thinking of you this time of year. If you ever want to talk about Jim or just get a coffee, please let me know.”

Grief is universal but takes many forms. The experience of grief varies widely. There is no time limit on grief, and for many, the grieving process is lifelong. For some, staying busy is curative, while for others, it can be hard to keep going. This is especially true during the holidays.

If you are grieving, you are not alone. There are support groups in person and online. Team Sharing is a national online and in-person platform and advocacy group for parents who have lost their children to overdose. Grief Recovery After Substance Passing (G.R.A.S.P.) provides a directory of in-person support meetings as well.

Staff Reports