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How to Celebrate the Holidays Together, Even When You’re Far Apart

It goes without saying that the holidays are going to be quite different this year. Although some families may be able to get together in small groups (and spend as much time outdoors as possible), many others have already opted to skip holiday travel altogether in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and are figuring out ways to celebrate the season from afar.  

Let’s not sugarcoat things: The idea of staying put this season can be dispiriting no matter which winter holiday you're celebrating — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, Yule. But the good news is that while skipping in-person festivities is certainly not a dream scenario, it doesn’t have to be a complete wash, either. There are still ways to make the season meaningful — you just have to get a little creative and keep an open mind. These tips will help you and your loved ones stay close during the merry months ahead, even when you’re far apart.

First Things First: Reframe the Narrative

Holiday card on a Christmas tree
Credit: Aaron Burden/ Unsplash

When thinking about what the holidays will be like this year, it’s easy to go down a deep, dark rabbit hole of “do you remember whens.” Remember when grandpa burned the turkey at Thanksgiving that one year, so he decided to carve the apple pie for effect while grandma doubled down on sides for dinner? Or when your toddler twin nieces insisted on wearing their sparkliest tiaras and raiding their aunties’ eyeshadow palettes just before family photos? Ah, memories.

Reminiscing about all of the hilarious, heartwarming times you’ve had with your nearest and dearest over the years is a totally normal thing to do right now, and it can make it especially hard if you won’t get the opportunity to do that in the same way this season. But rather than dwell on what you won’t be able to do, consider what you can do, instead. The pandemic has certainly created increased health concerns and travel restrictions, but connecting with family and remembering what is important can help keep things in perspective. Count your blessings, as they say, and — bonus! — there’s tons of research out there that shows that cultivating gratitude can actually change your brain and make you feel happier overall.

Lean Into the Virtual Holiday Dinners

Thanksgiving desserts
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It’s true: Zoom fatigue is real. For anyone who spends hours each week having important school- or work-related calls while looking at themselves and their colleagues in tiny little picture-in-picture boxes, perhaps adding extra Zoom calls to your schedule isn’t ideal. But the truth is Zoom and other similar video-conferencing programs can also be a great way to connect with your extended family — and it will probably delight the older, retired folks in your group who do not have to use it on a regular basis.

The key to making a virtual dinner memorable and fun is to keep up your usual traditions and bring in the same props you would if you were all together. For example, my mom always puts British Christmas crackers on our plates at Christmas dinner to honor her British roots. Before we eat, we always pull the crackers open to get the colorful paper crowns inside, and then we wear the crowns throughout the meal. We’ve already talked about doing a big Christmas Zoom dinner with all of our extended family members — about 40 in total — and instructing everyone to make sure to procure the poppers in advance. This common theme will help us feel connected, and it will be a super fun visual to boot.

Recipes are a great way to bring everyone together, too. A couple weeks before the dinner, send everyone an email with at least one recipe that everyone can cook so that you can eat the same dish together when you’re on the call. You’ll want to keep it simple for this — think easy desserts or sides — since everyone has varying cooking abilities. I went to a Zoom baby shower a couple months ago where the host sent an easy custom cocktail recipe to everyone before the big event, and many couples who have had Zoom weddings this year have done the same thing.

No matter how you choose to unite your crew on Zoom, though, make sure all attendees know how to use the platform in the first place (especially grandparents or any elders who are less tech-savvy). It can help to designate one person as the go-to tech support, rather than trying to explain each step over text or email. For example, a couple months ago, my family held a virtual birthday dinner for my 93-year-old grandfather; one cousin (who was careful beforehand and wore a mask!) went over to his house a few days before the party to install Zoom and walk him through the process of logging on. If this is not possible because of distance, have the dedicated tech person call the older folks and do it over the phone. Pro tip: Pick the most patient member of your family for this important task!

Take the Celebrations Offline, Too

Navratri food platter
Credit: Indian Food Images/ Shutterstock

Virtual get-togethers are great, but they are not the only way to feel connected to your family when you’re apart. Another way to keep the love going from afar is to choose a tradition or ritual to partake in together on your own time. My husband, Rahul, grew up in New Delhi, India; his parents and sister still live there, while we’ve made our home in Brooklyn, New York. We have celebrated many holidays with his family from afar, including one of my favorites, Navratri, a Hindu holiday that celebrates the start of fall and new beginnings.

Part of Navratri involves going vegetarian for nine days to cleanse the mind, body, and spirit, and I always feel strongly connected to my in-laws when Rahul and I cook our plant-forward meals in our apartment during that period of time. Even though I don’t talk to his parents and sister on the phone every day, just knowing that they are also preparing the same meals on the other side of the world and feeling the same occasional cravings for eggs and meat helps the New York-to-New Delhi distance feel less extreme. This year, I even brought my mom in on the holiday, and it was fun to text each other new vegetarian recipes that we were whipping up for the cause.

Make Their Day With The Mail

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The mail is also your friend when you’re celebrating holidays from afar, especially when it comes to food. Every Christmas my stepgrandmother sends a huge crate of oranges and English muffins with jam to each of my dad’s eight siblings, and when we call them on Christmas Day, it feels special to know that we are all munching on the same goodies. Likewise, a friend told me that her German cousins send her family a traditional Dresden stollen each December, and her Alaskan aunts and uncles send fresh king crab to their midwestern relatives for their family tradition of a day-after-Christmas crab lunch.

If you coordinate ahead of time, you could do as one colleague of mine does for Hanukkah — her family has themed gift nights, so after lighting that night’s candle on the menorah, they each open a present that has something in common. For a “team night,” everyone gets something from their favorite sports team, or on “music night,” perhaps you introduce your dance-loving nephews to the latest Kylie Minogue release. Whatever it is, you’ll know your family is all jamming to some new tunes or relitigating that terrible play-call from last season.

Gifts in the mail can also be tied to different memories or rituals. Rahul and his sister celebrate Raksha Bandhan, which is a Hindu festival during the Hindu month of Shravana (around July or August) that honors the eternal bond between brother and sister. During the holiday, sisters tie a protective thread — the “thread of protection” — around their brothers’ right wrists. Since Rahul’s sister is so far away, she mails a red thread to Rahul every year, and he mails her a couple gifts to signify his eternal protection in return. Simply wearing the thread that she sent helps him feel closer to her.  

Remembering What Really Matters

Christmas tree shown from above with presents at bottom
Credit: Thought Catalog/ Unsplash

It’s important to acknowledge that celebrating the holidays when you’re far apart will always come with a tinge of sadness. In a fantastical world, we would all be able to teleport to each other at a moment’s notice and fall into a heap of hugs and kisses from children, adults, and pets alike. But this is 2020, and we’ve all been learning to make the best of each new season. And if it turns out that making the best of this winter involves a crate of freshly-shipped Florida oranges, or a traditional loaf of German fruit bread, or a boozy Zoom dinner with your grandparents, then it sounds like a happy holiday indeed.

The author, Annie Daly, is a travel and wellness writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her book "Destination Wellness: Global Secrets for Better Living Wherever You Are" will be available April 2021.