By Holly LeMaster

The holiday season is quickly approaching and we find ourselves in circumstances that many epidemiologists and data scientists anticipated over the summer months: a new surge in COVID-19 cases across the nation. The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) are telling us that indoor gatherings, even of our close team members and extended families, are putting us at greater risk than we might imagine and recommending that we refrain from celebrating the holidays this year in ways we’re accustomed to.

This is disappointing news to all of us who are feeling over this pandemic business—who just want to spend time with our colleagues, friends, and loved ones. The sense of comfort and belonging we experience by being in one another’s presence is irreplaceable. And the importance of ceremony, celebration, and ritual add great meaning to our lives. So we have to get creative this year about how we intentionally make the holidays special--even if we can’t be together face-to-face.

Here are some ideas we’re mulling over at Innovative Connections. They’ll require a bit of planning ahead but may create some fun new traditions you’ll want to continue in years to come. Those of us who work behind a computer daily may be feeling “Zoom fatigue;” however, gathering in celebration with colleagues or loved ones who we don’t often see can be an entirely more engaging experience.

First, a few tips to get started:

  • Send “care packages” ahead to your team or group members with items they’ll need to engage in planned activities. You’ll need to give yourself plenty of time to shop (perhaps online), gather the items, then package and send them in time for the celebration.
  • Before the gathering, help anyone who may be less comfortable with technology by doing a test session and coaching them through what to do. This can greatly help reduce anxiety for those who may be feeling it.
  • If this is a company gathering, you may want to consider providing expense reimbursement or gift cards to alleviate any financial burden of participating on employees.
  • Think about asking everyone to dress up in festive attire to create the vibe of a more special, out-of-the-ordinary happening.
  • Remember that your goal is to create a shared experience--the next best thing to actually being in person together, to help people feel closer and more connected. Things may not go “perfectly” and that’s okay!

Some ideas for gathering activities:

Give gifts. Secret Santa gift exchanges can still be fun.

  • Set the guidelines for gifting (i.e., should the gifts be silly, meaningful, practical; how much should people spend) as always. Or you might want to go with a theme, like gifting the best book you read this year.
  • A coordinator will need to put everyone's name in a hat, draw matches for the entire group, and secretly email the name of the giftee to each “Santa.”
  • Each Santa will shop for and mail their present to the giftee in advance of the gathering.
  • During the celebration, each person will unwrap their gift in front of the camera and try to guess the identity of their Secret Santa.

Get appreciative.

  • Before the gathering, each member of the team or group spends some quiet time thinking about every other member of the group. They write down one thing that they appreciate about every other person, or one thing they’d like to thank or acknowledge them for. If this is a work team, you may also want to include the group as a whole, thinking about the team’s accomplishments over the year.
  • During the gathering, focus on one person at a time to receive the appreciation. The other members of the group each read their reflection about the person who is being featured. The idea is for that person to hear all of the love from everyone in the group before moving on to focus on the next person.
  • You may want to toast (with either an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage, as appropriate) each person after all of their comments have been received.
  • If you’re also acknowledging a team or group, do that at the end.

Get competitive. Contests and awards can translate well to a virtual setting.

  • Have an ugly sweater contest.
  • Give awards specific to the efforts of your team (either silly or serious).
  • Create a scavenger hunt with a specific list of obscure or interesting items; participants need to gather the items in a limited amount of time and share them with the group.
  • Online games--of course there are many types of games specifically designed for groups to play online together.

Break bread. Consider sending out a recipe, and perhaps even mailing unique or unusual ingredients ahead of time. Everyone can cook simultaneously, or cook the same recipe before the gathering, and then eat together.

Tell stories. Ask each participant to share an anecdote or story with the rest of the group, for example, recall and describe your favorite holiday memory in as much detail as possible. Or talk about the leader or mentor who had the most impact on your life and career.

Get deep. If it suits your group, prepare a list of some deep, philosophical questions to ignite meaningful conversation. There are numerous card decks you can purchase for just this purpose. Or perhaps you’ll choose an article or poem to read, or a movie to watch, before the event and discuss it together.

Get creative. Design a group painting or craft activity. Send the materials ahead and have fun creating together.

Showcase talent. Chances are, there’s a lot of talent (maybe heretofore hidden?) in your group. Create a forum for anyone who wants to sing, play, read a poem, or share another skill or gift.

Dream into the future. This could be especially appropriate for a New Year’s celebration. Spend some time together in quiet reflection imagining what you would like 2021 to look and feel like. Then share your hopes and dreams with one another aloud.

Give back. There are countless charities and nonprofits who are doing the meaningful work of supporting those in need during this challenging time. Consider selecting one for your group to sponsor and sharing in the goodwill together.

While 2020 may not give us the holiday session we want, this is the holiday season we’ve got. We can keep ourselves, our colleagues, and our loved ones safe without sacrificing the connection and meaning we find in gathering to honor special occasions. And we may find even deeper gratitude when we’re finally able to be together, in person, once again.