Two years ago, Fishtown roommates Jeff Barrett, 36, and Stephen Lyons, 37, were filled with optimism for the holiday season.

"We were both going into the holidays with dating situations," said Barrett, a musician, theater director, and set designer, "but they both fell apart just before Christmas."

Barrett's would-be girlfriend was called to the church, and decided to join a convent. Lyons' date received a more mundane, but equally persuasive call - from an ex-boyfriend.

For single people, December and its serial celebrations can be an especially fraught time. Whether it's showing up dateless at the office party, standing solo while others are locked in the traditional New Year's Eve kiss, watching an endless stream of Kay Jewelers commercials, or facing a barrage of questions during Christmas dinner, the holidays can present plenty of less-than-merry moments.

Barrett believes it's a necessity for him to have a New Year's date, so he starts "going nuts a week or two before." Lyons, a musician and actor who finds himself single again this winter, agreed. "Things become very tense around the mistletoe."

In fact, 48 percent of singles deem finding dates for holiday parties more stressful than shopping for presents, according to a recent member survey by the dating website Match.com.

Whether it's a dinner party or a family get-together, arriving solo at an event packed with twosomes brings challenges.

"When I'm with my family, everybody's married and everybody has kids, and it's like I don't fit in there," said Jennifer Pour, 40, of South Philadelphia. "When you're in a situation like that, it feels very obvious, and uncomfortable a little bit."

For Dan McQuade, 27, a Web editor and blogger who lives in Center City, it's the palpable focus on romance that has created some disconcerting moments. "You're out with a bunch of friends and some people will have left, and you'll look around, and it's you and three couples," said McQuade. "I don't know if I'll get over being the third, fifth, or seventh wheel."

Worse still, said Barrett, is being excluded outright - as when a close friend told him he wasn't welcome at a couples-only New Year's Eve party because he didn't have a date.

Yvonne Lee, 37, of Society Hill, a magazine editor, is single by choice ("I'm really commitment-phobic," she said), and the holiday traditions among her Korean American relatives include interrogating the family singletons.

"The reason why people tend to ask a lot of questions around the holidays is because they gather," she said. "Naturally, when everyone's eating and talking, they're going to ask you about your life - and, because they're Asian, they're going to ask probing questions.

"They always talk to you like they feel sorry for you. It's almost like they don't really believe that you can have a fulfilling life on your own, because so many first-generation Korean Americans follow the status quo."

And yet, the status quo in the United States has changed. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center in association with Time magazine, just 52 percent of U.S. adults were married in 2008, down from 72 percent in 1960. (The difference is most pronounced among young people: 26 percent of people in their 20s were married in 2008, compared with 68 percent in 1960.) And 39 percent of adults surveyed consider marriage altogether obsolete.

However, perceptions have not changed to align with reality, according to Philadelphia clinical psychologist Judith Coché.

"We haven't caught up with some of our own statistics," she said. "Our culture is still geared toward looking at marriage as the norm. There seems to be a real preference for celebrating that, 'Oh, it's so great to be married.' Well, it's actually pretty great to be single and to have time to yourself, and to be able to pursue your own activities. We rarely hear people extolling how important that is."

Neither do we see many single people represented in popular culture in the run-up to Christmas. Watch TV, singles say, and the couples bias is unmistakable.

"Every commercial you see is about buying gifts for your loved ones, especially diamonds," said Suzanne Smith, 32, a human resources professional who lives in Fishtown. "Mediawise, it's in your face, in movies and commercials. It's much more couples- and families-based."

Likewise, the idealization of holiday traditions can cast a pall over singles' makeshift substitutions.

"Two dudes picking out a tree," Lyons said, shaking his head as he recounted sharing the holiday with his roommate. "That's one of the lonely things about Christmas - all the traditions you'd like to do with someone."

Those who view the new year as a time of self-assessment can find the season especially poignant.

"I try not to compare myself to other people my age, but it's hard when you're not on the same time line as other people," Smith said.

Yet avoiding those comparisons, say experts, is vital to enjoying the season as a single.

"It's a very long life and most of us spend periods of it single and periods of it married," said Judith Sills, a Philadelphia clinical psychologist and the author of Getting Naked Again, a book about dating for older women. "There are joys in each period and there are strains in each period. Try to view this period for what it is: an episode in your life that comes with its own emotional package, and not necessarily a permanent state."

That may be a tall order, but there are simpler steps you can take.

"Come up with an answer to the question, 'Why aren't you married?' " Sills suggested. "You'll feel less anxious when you're prepared."

That answer could range from aggressive ("I don't know. Why do you ask such rude questions?") to genuine ("It makes me uncomfortable when you ask me that").

Couples can help alleviate singles' stress by including them with or without a date, or offering them a ride to a party so they don't have to show up alone. "I always appreciate it when people invite me over, and I think it's nice if they say, 'Bring a friend,' especially if you don't know them too well," Pour said.

And remember, said Sills, the holiday season may be rife with social land mines, but it's also rich with opportunities.

"When you're single, as fraught as that is with various emotional complexities, it's also a very romantic state of life, full of possibility," Sills said. "Your married sister knows who she's going to meet at the party, and that would be no one. You don't know."