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Zoom holidays: An upgrade on family gatherings or obnoxious substitute? | Pro/Con

Debate: Long live, or down with, the screen holidays?

For some, video chat has made the holidays more fun, while for others, it feels like work.
For some, video chat has made the holidays more fun, while for others, it feels like work.Read moreGetty / Mixetto (Custom credit) / Getty Images

COVID-19 has upended the holiday season, requiring people to stay far from friends and family at a time when we want their company most. Some have turned to video chat technologies like Zoom to fill the gaps and at least see the faces of loved ones. While video holidays expand the possibilities for gathering across physical distance, to some revelers it feels like a depressing imitation of seasonal fun.

The Inquirer turned to two journalists separated from family this year to debate: Do Zoom holidays improve on your normal celebrations, or fail to measure up?

An upgrade: In a tough year, I became a Zoom-party believer.

By Tamara Keith

Like most everyone, I hit my limit of Zoom meetings and Google hangouts by mid-November, having reached the point in the pandemic where even changing out of pajamas felt like a heavy lift some days. But then something happened to restore my faith in this technology of necessity: Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is my Super Bowl. Family flies into D.C. from California. We cook for days. I was determined to make it special this year, somehow, even in this time of social distance. (Remember when social distance was a novel concept that we couldn’t imagine lasting past the spring?!) So, I scheduled a three-hour Zoom meeting, invited family far and wide, and got some silly turkey hats.

The Zoom window opened at 6 with the usual challenges of getting people in their 70s to figure out the technology. And then this virtual substitute that could have been a soul-crushing and sad reminder of what we were missing … wasn’t.

We shared a signature cocktail, mulled wine, with the mulling spices mailed to everyone in advance. This no doubt helped lighten the mood. Friends who have attended past Thanksgivings dropped in for the cocktail hour and got a good laugh before logging off, no sweat. One had a backyard bonfire movie night to get back to.

My uncle, aunt, and their golden retriever puppy were hosting a Zoom of their own, so eventually, we all hopped over there. And that’s when the magic really happened, as rectangles popped up revealing family we haven’t spent Thanksgiving with in years. It was like the great big gatherings we used to have a generation ago, before people moved and scattered all over the country.

My aunt has cancer and barely had the strength for Zoom. Our cousins were in quarantine with the youngest one, a high schooler, locked in her room with COVID-19. My parents have more comorbidities than I want to think about. All of which is to say, this gathering could not have happened without Zoom. And let’s be honest, it was far more ambitious than anything we would have tried in the before times.

“[Our Thanksgiving] was far more ambitious than anything we would have tried in the before times.”

Tamara Keith

Oh, and did I mention: There were goats! My cousin took her phone outside and Zoomed into dinner while feeding Greta and Billy, her family’s pet goats. Goats make excellent dinner guests — as long as you don’t have to smell them and there’s no way they can steal your pie. An ensuing goat castration conversation (I still can’t figure out what prompted it!) was hilarious and awkward and exactly the kind of thing our family gatherings devolve into, most especially while eating.

It was around this time one of the grandmothers on our Zoom exclaimed: “We didn’t have TV until I was a teenager, and now I see all your beautiful faces right here. This is amazing.”

Yes, we are all sick and tired of the COVID-imposed distance, the lack of hugs, the people who can’t figure out how to mute or unmute. But even so, this technology is a miracle. These moments are special, even at a distance, and especially when the calls let us easily bridge a distance we never could before.

Tamara Keith is NPR’s White House correspondent and a host of the “NPR Politics Podcast.”

A disappointment: Save me from more fatiguing screentime.

By Abraham Gutman

If having a Zoom holiday with your family gives you joy, I envy you.

As an immigrant, I’ve missed my fair share of holidays, birthdays, Shabbat dinners, and celebrations. In the past two years, the longest stretch I’ve ever been away from my family in Israel, thanks to a combination of bad planning on my part and later the pandemic, I missed all of it.

Living in proximity to my wife’s family gave some solace. I am lucky to have a warm family with whom to celebrate holidays and occasions, to spend time together and eat and drink a little too much, even when my own relatives are so far away.

Then the pandemic took that away from us, too. For Thanksgiving this year, my wife and I ate turkey her parents kindly dropped off while Mara, our 2-year-old, ran around after a sugar overload from eating a chocolate turkey. I could have envisioned my entire family sitting around the table, laughing and enjoying her putting on a show. But we were alone, and the holiday spirit didn’t really sink in for our house.

“There was one silver lining: At least there wasn’t an open laptop on the table.”

Abraham Gutman

Still, there was one silver lining: At least there wasn’t an open laptop on the table.

My family and I have marveled for years at how technology made my decision to immigrate to the U.S. much more bearable. I wake up every morning to a bunch of messages and, usually, cute photos of kids in my family’s WhatsApp group. We talk on the phone often for free thanks to the internet. And on weekends, we do FaceTime video calls where I can see them and they can see Mara.

A Zoom holiday is the obvious next step — especially now that we are also robbed from holiday gatherings with my acquired U.S.-bound family.

But I just can’t do it. Having a Zoom holiday doesn’t give me the joy that I get from a holiday with family. There are no smells of dishes, no chatter from the other room (or yelling, as Israeli culture dictates), and no bustling sense of too many people in a small space. In a Zoom, you can’t immerse yourself in a one-on-one conversation in the corner with a cousin, or get to know (/interrogate) that new person one member of the family finally brought home. And perhaps more than anything, you don’t get the feeling of squeezing around a table, and being surrounded by the people you love unconditionally.

» READ MORE: These activities will make you feel closer to family during a virtual holiday

What you do get from a holiday Zoom is a reminder of how many of the people you love are painfully bad with technology — and how fatigued you are from looking at a screen all day for work.

With a toddler, a big Zoom adds a lot of pressure. Mara is in high demand and she knows it. And like the good toddler she is, that means she will absolutely not play ball. So instead of eating, listening to the conversation (which let’s be honest, in Zoom is more a series of short TED talks from your family members), or singing along to holiday songs, you end up chasing, then negotiating, with a toddler to show her latest trick — or just be present.

If you invite me to a short video happy hour, holiday cheers before dinner, or candle lighting, I’m game. Anything more than that, I’ll have to politely decline. If I can’t have the holiday celebrations that I so crave, at least I can have some screen-free peace.

Abraham Gutman is a staff writer for The Inquirer’s Opinion team.

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