Can virtual Thanksgiving dinners be meaningful? Experts say we can adapt traditions

A Thanksgiving turkey dinner is shown in Toronto on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Sarah Vaill-Ciano is used to hosting Thanksgiving on a large scale. With a family of nearly 20 people, sizable soirees are hard to avoid at her place.

In a normal year, dinner would be served on extended tables, conversations would stretch well into the evening, and her youngest niece would spend most of the day chasing the Vaill-Ciano cat around the house.

“It’s usually pretty crazy,” the Keswick, Ont., resident said. “And we love it.”

This year’s Vaill-Ciano bash, altered by rising COVID-19 cases, won’t include any of that. At least not in person.

With her mother suffering from COPD, an obstructive lung disease, Vaill-Ciano has been doing family gatherings on Zoom since the early stages of the pandemic. They started with a virtual Easter dinner in April, and they’re going back to that for Thanksgiving.

“We sat and ate together even though we were apart. It was different but not horrible,” Vaill-Ciano said. “Everybody is upset about not (being together) but … it’s either have a Zoom family dinner or no family dinner at all. That’s kind of the way we look at it.”

Vaill-Ciano is one of many Canadians turning to virtual Thanksgiving plans amid a second wave of the pandemic.

And while an online event can’t replace the connections from an in-person party, there are ways to ensure virtual feasts are still meaningful.

We just have to “adapt our traditions,” says Shana MacDonald, an associate professor of communication arts at the University of Waterloo.

“It’s clearly going to be a big departure from what we’re used to. And we need to acknowledge that,” MacDonald said. “So ask yourself: ‘how do I usually structure Thanksgiving?’ And then how can you modify the most meaningful parts so you still get those things that matter in modified form?”

MacDonald says one way to make the dinner meaningful is to share recipes beforehand so everyone can prepare the same meal.

Vaill-Ciano is going one step further, making all the food herself — including her famous turkey recipe where the bird is draped in bacon and apples are stuffed inside to keep it moist — that she’ll deliver in portioned packages to her family’s front steps. Sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, broccoli and “lots of gravy” are also on the menu.

Vaill-Ciano doesn’t mind the extra work if it means giving her family that shared experience. But she draws the line at delivering her culinary creations to her brother who lives 350 kilometres away in Sudbury, Ont.

“I think he ate a sandwich at Easter so I expect he’ll do that again,” she said with a laugh.

Viall-Ciano plans to set up her laptop at the end of the table to converse with family throughout dinner. After that they’ll disperse and continue celebrating among their respective households.

MacDonald says setting up a time limit like that is a wise way to avoid the “Zoom burnout.” She suggests picking one component of the holiday to take virtual — maybe a pre-dinner toast, or dessert to tie things up — instead of an hours-long event that can drain peoples’ attention spans.

Those who want to extend festivities further can, however, by incorporating activities like watching a movie or playing a game together.

“However you would normally connect, take that to a virtual level,” MacDonald said.

Calgary resident Tamara Lee is bringing a unique extra element to her virtual Thanksgiving. She and her extended family, which includes immunocompromised individuals, will either do a group reading of a Shakespeare play or select sonnets over Zoom.

Lee’s daughter, a classical singer, will also perform a song or two for the musically inclined bunch.

“Normally we’d get together for a big dinner and lots of laughing and storytelling all evening, and obviously we can’t do that this year,” Lee said. “We’ll absolutely miss the in-person (element) … so that will be hard.

“But we’re trying to look on the bright side.”

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, says it’s common to view virtual hangouts as sub-par replacements for in-person events.

Video calls can make for “stilted and awkward” conversation, he says, and suggests one-on-one communication over a group affair.

Better yet may be a simple phone call with family members before or after the meal.

“With the telephone, you can hear the tone of the person really well, and we tend to pay attention to somebody when we’re on the phone with them,” Joordens said. “With Zoom, we’re distracted by other things. … It does sort of make it non-human.

“So picking up the phone and trying to have a real conversation, feeling the tone of that other person and sharing that humanity is a potential substitute.”

MacDonald says virtual Thanksgivings may be easier to swallow for those who have gotten used to videoconferencing platforms over the last seven months.

That will be especially true for those who have used technology to connect over holidays like Easter or Passover, or for events like birthdays or weddings since the pandemic began.

“We’ve worked out some of the kinks already, we’ve figured out what we really like, and maybe we’ve created new traditions,” she said. “But every family is going to be completely different in terms of what they need to get out of that connection.”

While Vaill-Ciano is fine with taking Thanksgiving to a virtual level, she’s hoping she won’t have to do the same for Christmas.

“There’s togetherness in (Easter and Thanksgiving), but the magic in Christmas is different,” she said. “That’s the one I want to be really close to my family.

“So if everyone can (sacrifice) Thanksgiving together, maybe we can be together for Christmas.”

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

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