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The Virtual Thanksgiving

Virtual Thanksgiving
Our little kitchen helpers back during our first virtual Thanksgiving

The Virtual Thanksgiving is nothing new. We have been doing it for years. What makes it different now is that many, many people will have to do it due to restrictions on family gatherings.

Without getting into the politics the fact that Thanksgiving has to go virtual is not the end of the world. In fact, it can be a fun event that kicks off a whole new level of celebrating a very old tradition.

Some complain that because Thanksgiving features food so prominently it just cannot be done virtually. Actually, the exact opposite is true. That Thanksgiving can be held virtually really speaks to how social a gathering Thanksgiving really is – quite unique among holidays.

Our family celebrated our first virtual Thanksgiving way back in 1998. It happened spontaneously. It happened because it had to happen.

Today we have much better technology to make it happen than we did in 1998. It is fun, however, to look back and see how it was our tradition and not our technology that really made the virtual Thanksgiving special.

~ Hostages Make It Easy ~

Our children were quite young and due to a job change we had moved too far away from family to gather for Thanksgiving. It was our first Thanksgiving away from either family.

For the years since we married it had been our tradition to spend Thanksgiving with my family or my wife’s family.

A lot of young marrieds do this, switching locations each year. In fact, many of my children now are at this stage of life and we enjoy them when it is “our year”.

I only bring this up because we fell into the virtual Thanksgiving due to the grandmothers. We moved just after the birth of one of our children and the Grandmas were missing the passing weeks of fast change that come with a baby.

Our parents were resistant at first to using technology beyond the telephone at that time. Getting on the Internet and sharing pictures then was possible. But it was not really easy or convenient.

It started by accident. Using my then-new digital camera I took some fresh photos of the baby.

To share them online I had to download the images from the camera, edit them on my computer, upload them to my website and then call the grandparents on the landline to tell them to go look at them.

If I asked them to go look at yams, they never would have done it.

But because it was the baby, they didn’t hesitate.

I will never forget the marvel of the moment. It was not unlike the Polaroid images of old.

When they were able to see a picture from thousands of miles away that had been taken just moments before it was a miracle to them. And it changed the day.

~ Spontaneity Takes Preparation and Coordination ~

From that sharing of baby pictures and the realization we had a new tool to “be together” on Thanksgiving a plan for the day ahead unfolded.

You see, not only was it our first Thanksgiving away it was our first Thanksgiving meal to prepare, too. We had never done a turkey before.

Mash potatoes were a challenge. Real cranberry sauce was a hurdle. The sweet potatoes were a yearly miracle we clearly had never been worthy of.

And the pumpkin pie? Forget about it.

My wife, her sisters and her mother loved what they called “baking day” on the day before Thanksgiving. For them it was a tradition. Those hours in the kitchen ALL day were important for more than just the food. They loved the time together.

But it was the kids that really kept them engaged: kids in the kitchen helping to stuff the turkey, kids in front of the TV, kids playing games, and kids setting the table. The children kept the grandparents engaged.

So the digital camera and the telephone that day got a work out as long as the kids were involved.

We joked about it then.

These were not just our children we were sharing pictures of. They were our hostages because they were the key to keeping the grandparents on both sides coming to the computer and the phone all day as we connected.

~ The Thanksgiving Things You Do ~

We learned that Thanksgiving that we didn’t have to smell the turkey, taste the yams or even set the table to enjoy each other miles apart.

We just had to embrace technology and do the things we normally do on Thanksgiving.

And of course it is not the same. That’s not the point.

The point is doing what you can do despite the distance between you. It makes for a fun and even deeper Thanksgiving experience if you allow it to.

Here are some different ways to think about marrying technology with the traditions of Thanksgiving:

  • Food

    • Fix it together in real time – I’ve seen my wife with my daughters, her sisters or her Mom many times with everyone in their own kitchens doing the crust. There are lots of debates, great laughter and some tears. Yes, it takes longer. Yes, there may not be as many pies completed or cookies baked. But time spent? Priceless.
    • Share the recipes – Food just brings people together. White onions or yellow? Salted or unsalted butter? White flour or wheat flour? There are no right answers. Everyone has opinions and plenty of them. The point isn’t being right. It’s being together.
    • Share the pictures and videos – Several of my daughters are now busy moms. They don’t necessarily have the time to make a crust or mash pumpkin by hand like their Thanksgiving purist Mother. But, they’ve got phones and can instantly share a photo or a video. That makes for a powerful tool while everyone is in the kitchen. I’ve seen many a pie delayed or cookies sidetracked by a video from one of the kids. And that’s ok. The same thing would happen if they tramped into any one of those busy kitchens.
  • Gathering 
    • Zoom it or Google Meet or Facebook Groups – Sitting around the table is a fine time to get everyone on a video chat. Nearly everyone has a phone. Seriously.A couple of years ago on Christmas Eve I had a granddaughter on my lap while trying to send a message to our extended family Facebook group. Something happened and she bumped my arm and all of a sudden a video call went out to dozens of family members all over the country at 8:30pm my time on Christmas Eve.Everyone rushed to answer because…it was Christmas Eve.

      For a solid 2 minutes there was mass chaos as everyone on the call saw everyone else in their homes in front of the tree doing Christmas.

      There were smiles and laughter all the way around.

      It took forever among it all before I could call everyone to order to explain it was just an accident.

      What a happy accident it was and what a Christmas memory it created for everyone. We drained a lot of batteries that night as that accidental video call carried on for a while.

    • Share and record memories – Several years ago, thanks to a push from, an effort was launched called The Great Thanksgiving Listen.Storycorps is an effort to record the personal memories of people. It’s based on the idea that everyone has unique stories and that those memories need to be preserved. Their emphasis at Thanksgiving has always been about capturing the memories of older family members as families gather for Thanksgiving. Wonderful, right?

      When I was a kid Thanksgiving and funerals were only the time that I saw these elderly family members.But recording family memories is not only something for the aged. It’s for everyone.

      There’s no reason we cannot easily embrace the recording of family memories through the use of everyday technology. You can even use the free services of or to save and share those memories.

      Want an example of a great family Thanksgiving memory? Click here.

    • Scan and share photos – The sharing of old family photos is always a popular sport and never has it be easier to do so. We know of a family who uses the time their turkey is in the oven to go through family photos together each Thanksgiving.

Over the years they have archived in digital formats several hundred photos each Thanksgiving and the use them to connect and share with family at a distance. Isn’t that a wonderful use of their time together?

  • Games – Game playing on Thanksgiving is a time honored tradition in many homes. Technology too can be used to play those games virtually.
    • Actual games – A cousin I know who loved the annual family “Turkey Bowl” flag football game took it to another level one year by strapping Go Pro video cameras on a group of family members playing at a distance. The result was a hilarious game of flag football that quickly became a tackle game, just to “enhance the realism” of the activity. Those cameras were pretty tough as they were later used to document a visit to the emergency room, too. But that’s another story. It’s all a happy memory now…
    • Scavenger hunts – Kids love to be involved and scavenger hunts are fairly easily to organize, even from a distance using a phone. In fact, the pandemic has exploded this trend and it is easily adaptable to the family Thanksgiving.
    • Phone games – My millennial kids like to play a game on their phones called Psych. You download the app so that all players can make up fake answers to real trivia questions about each other. Yes, it usually devolves into a game of insults – and the results are often hilarious.
  • Christmas decorating – Thanksgiving weekend is famously the biggest time of the year for setting up a Christmas tree. This is an activity that does not have to be done in person. I have a daughter in Salt Lake City who can eye the best side of a fresh cut tree and get it straight all from her phone. No lie, she does video consultations with the family all weekend. The “big reveal” of fully decorated trees is a favorite group call on Thanksgiving night, just as another round of pie is served. It’s also a time to show off the newly decorated home or the recently strung Christmas lights.
  • Together online – We find a lot of creative ways to share and do things together online, too:
    • Shopping party – Black Friday shopping used to be a thing in the wee hours of the morning. Those hours have been replaced now by browsing the same sites at the same time while talking Christmas plans. It can take hours. Maybe money will or will not actually be spent. Does it matter?
    • Christmas websites – This has become a thing in recent years. After the dishes are done the online sharing extends to finding Christmas online.
    • Video sharing – The online stuff invariably heads to YouTube – where music and movie videos are shared…and debated.
    • Podcasts – And this leads people to Christmas podcasts. Because, of course, this podcasts for Christmas are now a big thing.

The possibilities for the virtual Thanksgiving are practically endless. The hardest part is just getting others you love to connect with you while you do it. Don’t hesitate and don’t hold back. Pick a date and a time and follow through.

You will never regret it.

Father of 7, Grandfather of 7, husband of 1. Freelance writer, Major League baseball geek, aspiring Family Historian.