By MATT VILLANO
With rising case numbers all over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has guaranteed that Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas will look different this year.
For most of us – at least those of us who plan to follow government guidelines – that means it may be time to host a holiday celebration that unfolds in the same virtual environment as work and school.
Zoom has suspended the usual 40-minute limit for all meetings globally from midnight Eastern time November 26 to 6 a.m. Eastern time Nov. 27. What should you consider as you plan a holiday over this medium? And how can you make this newfangled spin on family traditions memorable? Here are five ways to shine.
Make it a production
By this point in the pandemic – eight months and counting – adults, children and maybe even the family pet have logged hundreds of hours on Zoom. As such, it’s important to think of a virtual holiday as an opportunity to do something out of the ordinary.
Yes, this might mean an impromptu poetry reading. It also could mean a Blair Witch Project-style video investigation of the smell coming from behind the garage fridge.
Paula Rizzo, a media trainer and author in New York City, suggested holiday hosts look at the virtual event as an opportunity for creativity. Envision it as if you were producing a television show and ask yourself: What do you want people to remember about it?
Rizzo turned 40 during the COVID-19 pandemic and had to cancel her big plans to travel to Europe. Still wanting to do something fabulous, she hired a sommelier to guide her and her friends and family through a wine and food tasting. Rizzo sent out menu ideas and what wines to purchase ahead of the party. She even hired a camera person who shot photos and created a video reel of the event for posterity.
“We visited Italy, Spain and France,” said Rizzo, a former television producer with an eye to visuals. “(Your holiday) can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like, but do more than just stare at each other on a video call.”
Rizzo added that while she advises against using custom Zoom backgrounds for work, incorporating them for a virtual holiday event could make the celebration more enjoyable. She said a host could challenge participating family members to create their own backgrounds and set up some sort of contest that rewards homemade prizes for originality, attention to detail and overall vibe, to name a few.
“The possibilities are endless and can add to the fun,” she said.
Come together around food and wine
As Rizzo experienced during her birthday celebration, food and drink offer an obvious opportunity for friends and family members to come together during virtual holidays.
This can be as easy as firing up the Zoom app to run through dinner, though it may behoove you to invest in a movie screen and a projector so people don’t have to squint to see Grandma and Grandpa in a box on a standard laptop screen or monitor.
Still, not everybody loves eating on camera, said Rebecca Gardner, an event planner and interior designer in Savannah, Georgia.
“No one wants to be caught in front of a screen for a long time,” she said.
Instead, Gardner suggested sharing one aspect of the meal together, such as a toast that “shows effort.” Highlighting a special moment, she said, “feels festive and sets the Zoom apart from another day at the office.”
In Salt Lake City, author Lindsay Eagar was planning to build her virtual holiday Zoom around dessert. Eagar, who loves to bake, said she expected to bake mini pies in flavors such as apple cardamom, chocolate peanut butter and pumpkin, then place them in brown boxes and distribute them to family members in the area so everyone can indulge at once.
Eagar described it as a “mystery pie date,” noting that she and her two daughters, ages 10 and 4, will instruct family members to wait to open their boxes until everyone is on a Zoom call so they can experience the big reveal together.
“I’m a dessert fiend,” Eagar wrote in a recent email. “My mom lives 15 minutes away, so we’ll bring the pies that morning and say hello from the porch with masks.”
All live events are better with entertainment, and your virtual holiday celebration is no exception.
One way to rise to the challenge: tasking your teenager to play engaging (and PG-13) music videos or TikToks throughout the event. Another option: providing entertainment yourself.
Canadians celebrate their version of Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, which means they already have experienced virtual events for the annual holiday. For his family’s virtual gathering, John Gunter and his family traveled from their home in Winnipeg to the family cabin in Grausdin Point, Manitoba.
Comfortably situated in the vacation digs up north, the family fired up the Zoom apps and connected with relatives all over North America – only to watch one cousin engage in a bit of performance art.
“One of the teenagers joined on his own connection (even though his mom was in the same house as him) and spent the whole time rebuilding a fishing reel, which we joked about,” Gunter remembered in a recent email.
Back in the United States, some families – and a host of companies – have inked a different kind of show: a professional, made-for-virtual-meetings magic act. The two-man gig, dubbed Digital Deception, incorporates augmented reality and high-tech gags to provide audiences with sessions that take a familiar format and make it interactive in new and unbelievable ways.
The experience is the brainchild of Brooklyn-based tech magicians Ryan Oakes and Doug McKenzie, two performers who in March pivoted their in-person magic show to exist online. While the magic differs every time, the goal is the same no matter what: to make the virtual space engaging in real life.
“Our initial approach was to create a show that you couldn’t watch as a recording,” Oakes said. “We wanted something that could replicate the feeling of being in a room with people, understanding the realities of the current time which, of course, prevent any of us from being in a room with other people (outside those in our families).
“It’s a great way to avoid having to talk about politics.”
Play some games
If magic isn’t your family’s jam, leveraging technology to play virtual games might be another way to celebrate as an extended group.
Eagar, the author in Salt Lake City, said her family loves Marco Polo, an app that enables users to send short video snippets to each other, and noted that they were looking forward to playing movie quote trivia with that technology on Thanksgiving.
Other families might send family members on scavenger hunts around their respective houses for specific (and Thanksgiving-themed) items.
Another popular option for some families: a form of virtual charades called Heads Up!
Jared Reichert, founder and creative director of Kiki Kit, a Palm Springs, California, company that makes virtual party box kits, said charades is one of his favorites because “it requires barely any supplies.” He added that families can create their own trivia contests and leverage Zoom’s polling feature to quiz relatives and judge them right after.
“[This is] no different than dinner party banter,” he said. “Virtual experiences allow you to expand the table without any fuss.”
Of course, families can go deep on multiplayer video games. Particularly for extended families that comprise serious gamers, this activity could be a great way to extend virtual togetherness deep into the evening. (One caveat: Because these games are addicting, eat dinner first.)
Allow for open time
Finally, no matter how structured you opt to make your virtual holiday, it’s always a good idea to build in some free time for guests to mingle and interact however they’d like.
Shonda Waxman experienced this firsthand in October following the bat mitzvah of her daughter Hannah. Meeting organizers from Temple Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon, livestreamed the event on Zoom, and left the Zoom running after the service so guests could talk among themselves.
According to Waxman, participants from both sides of the family seized this opportunity for individualized greetings, catch-ups and mazel tovs. At one point in the immediate aftermath of the main event, her father in Kentucky was able to congratulate the child’s other grandparents, who had logged on from their home in New Jersey.
“It was very special since it was a unique opportunity to get our families together,” Waxman said. “Given the current situation, it was as magical and beautiful” as it would have been in person.