As we enter the final months of 2020, this most untypical of years will become even more so as families across the country navigate their ways safely through the upcoming holiday season. Following the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that gatherings be limited, many people may find themselves celebrating alone in front of computer screens, with extended family at a virtual arm’s length. So how can we feel festive when the traditional warmth of gathering with our loved ones has been put on hold? Try these fun ideas that will allow you to be alone yet together as you share the spirit of the season.
Share a celebration meal
No doubt food plays a major role in holiday gatherings — but so does the conversation around the table. To feel connected to both, distribute some traditional family favorite recipes to the attendees prior to the virtual celebration. Then coordinate dinner so everyone can be sharing in the meal at the same time.
If cooking an entire meal doesn’t seem feasible, then lean on some great local options that are available. Lunds & Byerlys offers an entire Thanksgiving meal for three to five people, and Kowalski’s Markets is cooking up a small turkey dinner for just two. Local caterers like Spirit of Asia Catering are offering smaller traditional meals cooked in a kosher kitchen. So even if you’re celebrating solo, you’ll still be able to enjoy next-day leftovers.
Watch a holiday movie or broadway play
With teleparty.com, the option of crashing on the couch after a big meal and enjoying a classic movie with your loved ones is now possible! After a simple download, everyone can stream content at the exact same time to multiple locations from Hulu, Netflix, Disney and HBO. (Note that a Netflix subscription is required for all participants.) Up to 50 family members can even share comments with the group during the screening.
And if the lights of Broadway are calling out to you, then make a virtual visit to broadwayhd.com. There you’ll find 300 (filmed) live performances, including 62 musicals. A free trial allows you to catch a show before the $8.99 monthly subscription fee kicks in. Family members need to synchronize the opening curtain because there isn’t a sharing feature, but you can use messaging apps like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to share comments during the show.
Play a game
The world of gaming had cyberplay down to a science even before 2020, so it’s no surprise that there are a multitude of options available for virtual play. Head over to jackboxgames.com and hop on a videoconferencing service like Zoom or Google Hangouts. Then use the screen sharing option to start playing games like Fibbage and Trivia Murder Party. If you’re looking for free fun, The Houseparty app has games like Uno for up to eight people. Also free is virtual Scrabble and Monopoly (pogo.com), where you play together via the screen.
Of course, traditional favorites like charades, 20 Questions or Two Truths and a Lie can be played just using Zoom or other videochat options without any external applications. Consider designating a host, or someone who can act as the emcee, to coordinate input from your virtual players.
Invite a virtual guest
One key to a successful celebration is to have an engaging guest. With some online services, you can still invite the life of the party, albeit virtually. At thebash. com, there is a multitude of entertainers who offer magic tricks, tarot card readings and even background harp music.
Looking to have a Sinatra impersonator at the party? A comedian to perform a stand-up routine? An artist to draw caricatures? It might not be what your family celebrations have been in the past, but it will certainly make this one memorable.
Hold a cookie contest
Line up the frosting and sprinkles, and vote for the guest with the most creative cookie decorating skills. Partygoers can create their own or, for those baking-challenged members, order a complete cookie decorating kit — including eight sugar cookies, frosting and decorations — from edibleimpressions.net for $26.
Through video chat, decorating can happen in real time or prior to the party. Everyone gets one vote. As an added incentive, suggest a $5-per-person prize to the winner (sent via venmo.com) that can be donated to the charity of their choice. Sweetness all around!
Ways to connect
Zoom – The option of choice for most virtual meetings, Zoom can easily be installed on Windows and Mac devices. The service is free for 40 minutes but requires at least one member to buy into a contract (billed monthly or annually) for unlimited access. Closed captioning and virtual backgrounds are standard features.
Google Hangouts – Anyone with a Google Account can create an online meeting and invite up to 100 participants for free, but the meetings are limited to one hour. After that, an $8 fee per participant is required for 300 hours. Closed captioning and screen sharing are available.
High Fidelity – In its early development form, this new platform is audio-only and represents each participant as a colored dot. It’s a clever alternative for people who don’t want to be on video. Since it’s free, it could be a good option for those revelers who choose to open the celebration on one of the platforms above until time runs out and then move to audio-only for the rest of the gathering.
Skype – Created in 2003, this free service predates all the others. The platform has all the same features as Zoom and Google Hangouts, but it serves up an additional advantage of allowing members into a meeting without requiring them to download the app. Good for those who are less tech-savvy.
Facetime – This one is free and offers many, if not all, of the standard features but only works if everyone has Apple devices.
Write a Letter – Amy Lieberman, president of Estate Matters, a Minneapolis business that helps people with age- and transition-related issues, suggests going old school: Compose a letter to a loved one that will arrive by Thanksgiving. Sometimes the act of holding a letter, photo, article or even a cartoon sent by a caring person can bring repeated joy long after the season has passed.
Gerri Mack has been writing feature articles for various regional publications for more than 20 years. After raising her daughters in Minneapolis, she and her 60-something husband followed them to Denver where they currently live and play in the snow.