I may have cracked the virtual holiday code. That is, figured out how to conduct all of the rituals and traditions for this pandemic-plated edition of holiday season 2020 — albeit online. If you are like me, and have family far away, or distant places in your heart, read on. I, myself, am ready to pounce on the 2020 virtual winter festivities like a kid pouncing on his sleeping parents on a Saturday morning. Here’s my game plan:
Step one: Set the scene.
There’s no depending on other households to deliver that home-for-the-holidays feeling, so we’ll need to get our non-virtual homes ready in Arizona. There are numerous holiday traditions that simply cannot inhabit a screen, and you will want these components well positioned before you hop on the computer.
Think of it this way: Do you want a real Christmas tree with all of the Christmas tree smells and all of the pricked fingers and everything? You had better get one yourself, because an online glimpse of Grandma and Grandpa’s tree in Minnesota just isn’t going to cut it. Do you want your kids to be able to spin 100,000 dreidels all at once on the floor like you did as a young whippersnapper? They will not have access to Uncle Benny’s collection, so get yourself to the Judaica store website now!
It helps to engage all of your senses as you prepare your home. Inhale the factory-fresh scent of new flannel PJs. Wiggle your toes across paper scraps left behind from holiday card-making. Gaze in a stupor at the Christmas lights that took forever to hang. Listen to the sound of little “elves” nibbling on the cookies you baked earlier. Consume the scent of the pine-vanilla candle. (No, do not actually eat it.) Then order enough candles to make it smell like you are a squirrel family living inside a ponderosa pine.
Step two. Plot the family Zoomscapades.
In normal language, plan out your family’s holiday “video chat adventure.” And let everyone know the expectations. This time, it will not fly if your sister sits passively, video camera on her face, while she answers emails in another browser window. Because everyone’s full attention will be required for participation in whatever you are plotting. You may be working to get everyone ready for the group discussion your cousin has proposed on the ethics of eating meat, for instance. I plan on emceeing my family’s first ever sketch comedy showcase. I will be emailing out instructions imminently.
The important thing here is that in order to feel like everyone is really getting together, we all need to be able to maintain focus on the conversation. It needs to stay interesting. The “Hey, how ya been doing in 2020?” conversation must be avoided at all costs, and utterances of “now more than ever” should be met with a swig of adult beverage. And let guests relax into the call. This is not a five-minute check in, it is a five-hour long call. It will not be complete without at least two children and/or adults having tantrums, three instances of toilet-flushing everyone can hear, and four views of people chewing with their mouths open.
Step three. Embrace technology that helps connect us.
This part of the virtual family plan calls for activities that are interactive yet indirect — and therefore more relaxing. For instance, a gift swap can easily be arranged from a distance through an online system like Elfster — “the world’s No. 1 secret Santa generator,” through which little elves take a break from munching on cookies to match you with the relative whose gift you truly need this year. A well-planned swap can be executed at each participant’s leisure instead of at one predetermined time. That is, you could buy a locally made artisan gift for the exchange now and get it out of the way. Or you could lean over your kitchen table at 1 a.m., the day before the deadline, trying to figure out how to assemble a DIY chocolate-chip-cookie mix that uses only the whole wheat flour you already have on hand.
And then there’s Teleparty, a browser add-on that, whatever our families’ creed, religion, or level of festive cheer, can connect us over long distances through the magic of watching motion pictures “together” — if not in person. We all treasure that together-but-not-talking feeling of the afternoon matinee, and this will be the same, but with a paralyzing range of viewing choices. Just avoid surprises by discussing in advance if you will be watching “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” or “Midsommar.”
Step four. Cook traditional holiday food.
That’s not virtual, you argue. But you have to eat anyway, I and all Jewish mothers counter. Besides, all of this holiday brouhaha would not be complete without Hanukkah latkes, Kwanzaa stew or Christmas tamales, even if you are cooking just for yourself, your picky 4-year-old and Instagram.
Traditional holiday foods, and the special, slow meals that accompany them, help us hearken back to the days of our ancestors. Maybe said ancestors will reach across the ages and have some useful values or wisdom or whatever to share with our strung-out 2020 selves. Just do not burn the food or set anything on fire. We could obviously do without any more “2020” stories. And do not take too long eating, because the kids are ready to tear open all of the gifts you just wrapped.
This holiday season is going to be a searing (or is it roaring?) success. My plan for a contact-free winter holiday will siphon us into blissful merriment in no time. Or at least, into a Yuletide season that nobody will forget. So close your eyes with me. And count slowly to 10. And visualize your perfect version of virtualized holiday traditions.
Apps for socially distanced family fun
Elfster is a free gift exchange website meant to help make gift giving easier. Invite friends or family members to a Secret Santa circle via email, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or text message. Then make your wish list, draw names and shop. Done!
Readeo fosters the perfect virtual storytime session between loved ones. Its patented platform combines video chat with an award-winning library of kid’s books. So you can see both the pages and the faces of loved ones while you read and/or listen together.
Teleparty. Formerly Netflix Party (that’s still the website name), Teleparty lets friends and family members watch the same movie at the same time, and people can comment about what they’re seeing in a chat space.
TriviaMaker. Want to spice up the virtual holiday party? Put the tech-savviest relative in charge of hosting a holiday trivia contest. You can make your own or use an already created one on this app, which can be used on video chats like Zoom.
Virtual Bingo. Ramp up the fun with a game that works well with video chat platforms. MyFreeBingoCards.com is quick, easy and free for up to 30 players.