Celebrating with strangers: Don't celebrate Christmas alone

On Christmas Eve 2016, Christian Fein stood on his balcony in Ludwigshafen and smoked, shivering, in the silence.

Celebrating with strangers: Don't celebrate Christmas alone

On Christmas Eve 2016, Christian Fein stood on his balcony in Ludwigshafen and smoked, shivering, in the silence. The otherwise bustling streets were deserted, no people, hardly any noise. Even the train in front of the toy shop downstairs wasn't running anymore. Fein imagined all the women, men and children in the surrounding houses excitedly opening presents, cooking and drinking and laughing together. "At that moment I became painfully aware that I didn't want to be alone," says Fein. He had been sitting under the Christmas tree with his wife for the past seven years, but now the two were separated. She celebrated with her family, of which he was no longer a part.

He took his cell phone out of his pocket and wrote on Twitter:

"I think anyone who is alone on Christmas Eve should go under

It spread. Comments poured in every minute.

"Thank you for being here! :-)"

"How great is this hashtag? It's nice to see that you're not the only one who's alone today."

"Thanks to everyone out there, this evening doesn't feel so lonely. :-* :-)"

Christian Fein was still alone, but suddenly in good company. In no time, his hashtag became the number one trending topic on Twitter. Even on New Year's Eve and in January, people used it to feel less lonely.

The year passed. Fein met a new woman, moved in with her and was happy again. But when the next winter came, he remembered again how many people were looking for company at that time. "That's when I came up with this completely naive idea: What if I just brought these people together?"

He opened the blue Twitter dove and wrote: "So. If you already know that you're spending Christmas Eve alone and you want to do something about it, get in touch using this tweet. We'll find someone to keep/offer company."

Around 2,700 people wrote to him. He was able to arrange a few hundred. All he needed was an Excel spreadsheet. "I come from a management consulting background, so that was the most obvious thing for me." In the table, Fein collected the searchers' accounts and the cities in which they lived. Then it was connected.

It wasn't just users who became aware of the project. Fein's idea appeared in the Sunday Word, in newspapers and on television. And from the hashtag

Fein actually works as a management consultant at Deutsche Post. But since his idea became such a big project, every year from mid-November onwards he has been solely concerned with counteracting people's loneliness. He uses his entire annual vacation to network people using his Excel spreadsheets. “Most of those who contact us are between 18 and 50 years old – loneliness is not a question of age,” says Fein.

When René Reichelt, now 43, from Karlsruhe discovered Fein's offer, he was thrilled. “I immediately decided: All right, you’ll join in,” says the information technician. "Not so much because I was lonely too, but because I thought the idea was so great."

Reichelt is a heavy user and has been inviting strangers to his apartment at Christmas for several years. There is an extendable table there and he gets the missing chairs from the neighbors, some of whom always come to the party. He shops for roast pork or duck, this year there will probably be goose, along with Thuringian dumplings and lots of sauce. We cook together.

There are very different people who come together there. Once there was a woman who had to move out of her parents' house over the holidays and didn't know where to go. Another time a woman with two small children whose husband had recently died. AndaAlso a woman just over 20 years old who was looking for an excuse to avoid having to celebrate with her parents - like Reichelt himself, who has been avoiding Christmas with his family in Erfurt for years. He has already had up to 13 guests. “The more, the better,” is his experience. "In a small group, often no one says anything. But in such a large group you can't avoid it. Can you pass me the dumplings, here's the sauce, there's so much dynamism at the table, everyone starts talking. "

For a long time, loneliness was a taboo topic and hardly noticed politically. However, politicians have now recognized the urgency of the issue; the government recently adopted a strategy against loneliness with more than 100 individual measures. Increasing isolation poses a massive threat to health and is accompanied by depression and physical illnesses such as diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. It shortens life expectancy and is also a risk factor for civil society: chronically lonely people are more likely to reject democracy as a form of government and are more inclined to conspiracy theories, i.e. those who are well integrated into society.

People who are particularly at risk of loneliness are older people, those with low levels of education, low incomes and job seekers. During the years of the pandemic, a new risk group emerged: teenagers and young adults who have lost their social environment. According to a recent study, one in seven young people in North Rhine-Westphalia feels very lonely. But people who have gone through a change are also affected: separation from their partner, moving to another city, new job. People who perhaps have enough friends, just not where they live - and not at Christmas when the families get together.

Was

When mediating, he deliberately does not respond to the searcher's special requests. Also because he doesn't want to lure people with criminal or sexual intentions. "Of course I pay attention to inclusive needs or, for example, when a single mother says she doesn't want a male counterpart." To meet demand, volunteers often help shortly before Christmas, this year there are four. "I've also thought about using an AI." But then Fein thinks about those who need more than one algorithm. Because sometimes the loneliness is so advanced and the need for conversation is so great that these people are first referred to a telephone counseling service. If he suspects that people are at risk of suicide, he also tries to organize help from nearby. He has also sent an ambulance or the police a few times.

Achieve one thing

Even those who only feel alone at Christmas apparently have problems admitting it publicly. Fein has to experience this again and again when he is asked by the media before the holidays whether he could introduce them to users of his portal. Fein is happy that at least Karlsruhe IT expert René Reichelt is dealing with the topic so openly.

Another woman he referred to stern made it clear via email that it might be a misunderstanding: "The topic of loneliness is generally not a top priority for me, I just want Christmas Eve, which my friends are in with their families, not celebrating alone." During the phone call it became clear that she was also afraid that her employer would find out that she was meeting strangers at Christmas because otherwise she would be alone. As if it were a shame to have offers like this

Loneliness has become a top issue in politics. But people still have to learn to talk about it openly - and perhaps even admit the feeling to themselves. It also has positive sides, according to loneliness researcher Maike Luhmann. It is a "warning signal". Just as thirst motivates us to drink more, it drives us to seek out more social contacts. Most of the time it works. This Christmas could be a start.

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