All the problems my family had gathering in the before times have only been magnified on Zoom: There are too many people, no one wants to take turns talking and the preferred method of communication seems to be yelling over one another. But when my aunt purchased my 94-year-old grandparents a teddy bear that sings Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For” this summer, the chaos suddenly stopped. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t hear us or figure out how to look at the camera. My grandma would just let the bear do its thing while the rest of us laughed and swayed along in our chairs.
Six months later, my grandparents are three singing dolls deep, and my aunt and mom have started their own collections as well. Instead of arguing about politics and COVID precautions like we used to, the biggest family drama is about calling dibs on new animatronic performers to send to the nursing home for Christmas. (I’m getting them Billy Bass.) Somehow we’ve stumbled on a strange new family tradition, one that ended up being crucial during the pandemic.
“Traditions can help anchor us, comfort us and allow us to know what to expect. They also help us make meaning and mark the passage of time,” marriage and family therapist Saba Harouni Lurie explains, adding that traditions help us connect in a year where “fostering a sense of connection has been especially important.”
While the CDC is advising against holiday travel, that’s still a tough sell for our Boomer parents, who are more than willing to risk their lives for a hug. Introducing new traditions then — and adapting old ones — is a good way to soften the blow. And if singing dolls are a little too creepy for you and your relatives, Lurie and other experts have plenty of other ideas to try out, too.
When my brother got married in a small park ceremony in September, he streamed the entire thing on Zoom. As a present, my aunt made him a cookbook of all our family recipes, which I routinely borrowed until she offered to make me one of my own. Now we’ve settled into the habit of preparing the same dinners and comparing final results, before sitting down to eat with each other. “Traditions like baking the cookies your grandma used to bake during the holidays can help you remember someone who’s passed away, keep their spirit alive and smile in their memory,” marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind says.
Game nights have always been a great way to engage family on holidays. For instance, my family plays Pokeno (a combination of poker and keno) on Christmas to pawn off regifted crap to each other as prizes. Over the years, it’s become more fun than opening our regular presents. Better yet, it’s a very Zoom-friendly tradition. “Try playing virtual board games together,” marriage and family therapist Nicole Arzt suggests. “There are so many games, like Monopoly, Scrabble and poker, available to play online.”
Most of us have holiday movies we’ve grown accustomed to watching over the years. For me, it’s usually some sort of mash-up of A Christmas Story, Elf, The Muppet Christmas Carol and, of course, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. “The one thing that’s developed during this season is the use of so many different platforms to share experiences,” psychotherapist Candida Wiltshire tells me. “So families are using Netflix Party to watch movies together and bond in a different way while continuing a tradition.”
Giving back is at the heart of the holiday season, but the coronavirus has made volunteering in person more challenging. As such, Arzt recommends families look at programs like Toys for Tots and Adopt-a-Family, where you can shop for people who might appreciate the presents more than your retired parents. “People need support more than ever right now,” Arzt says. “Consider going in with your family to send gifts to someone in need.”
Year in Review
In the same way magazines highlight annual highs and lows, Lurie suggests doing the same with your family on Zoom. Ask everyone to review “what they’ve been pleasantly surprised by, what’s helped them navigate challenges, etc.” Any other time, this suggestion would seem as insufferable to me as saying what we’re grateful for on Thanksgiving; but after a year like this, sharing notes about what we’ve learned could be interesting — or even helpful. And for me, it might be the only thing that gets my relatives to take turns talking.
If not, there’s always the singing bear.