People are going to do everything in their power this year to celebrate Thanksgiving and feel connected under very difficult circumstances.

Thanksgiving can often end up being all about family (well, that and the infinite stream of floats in the Macy’s Day parade).

But Thanksgiving 2020 is a different beast. Having a gathering with people you don’t already live with likely won’t be possible given COVID restrictions in your area, and it may not be the case that that you can make it home to your family.

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Design by Yendi Reid; Photograph by Spike Mafford/Getty Image

However, all is not lost. We present to you: Virtual Friendsgiving (or Zoomsgiving, if you really want to twist the original name).

Yes, the act of celebrating Thanksgiving with friends rather than relatives is a thing (either on the actual holiday or another day near the end of November). The act of gathering over Zoom? Well, it now has to be a thing, doesn’t it?

Not everyone gets to (or even wants to) hang out with their folks during most normal years, anyway.

So while we can’t pretend an elaborate Zoom hangout will feel as special as the 4D Uncle Lenny experience, it’s a good way to get yourself through this year and could lay the ground for super fun switch-ups to your family routine in future years.

Here’s everything you need to know to throw a Zoomsgiving party to connect with the people you love during a COVID Thanksgiving.

If you’re still thinking of traveling…

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly advise against travel and gatherings with people outside of your own home.

However, at present, there are no federal restrictions in place. With this being said, COVID infections are at a peak, and it’s vital that we all do our part to try and make this the last Thanksgiving we do through a frickin’ webcam.

For more about safety concerns around Thanksgiving 2020, check out our article about travel cautions and CDC guidance.

This guidance is constantly changing. Please stay up to date.

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We’re not going to pretend that protecting yourself from COVID and avoiding face-to-face contact with the people you love will be any less painful for having a quasi-Thanksgiving over Zoom.

But this year, more than any other, we not only have to dig deep and find our gratitude for those loved ones who are now out of reach, but also express it.

The perverse upside of hosting a Zoomsgiving celebration is that you’re not restricted by that tiny apartment you live in or limited resources. So you can finally direct the flow of festive fun without having to serve food for a whole bunch of people.

The great thing about this is being able to invite people you normally wouldn’t be able to — friends, work colleagues, folks you may not normally reach out to for fear of being another mouth to feed on a budget.

It’s important that everyone has somewhere to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, even if they’re inhabiting a teensy-weensy window on your video conferencing account.

If you really don’t feel like you can bear to substitute the authentic Thanksgiving experience, you can also celebrate alone, if that’s how you’d prefer. You can express gratitude for what you have no matter where you are.

Get everyone involved before you even send off the video chat invitation.

1. Set up a group playlist

Love it or hate it, holiday music defines this whole time, and Thanksgiving allows you to dig into whatever Americana, party music, holiday classics, or, let’s be real, Dolly Parton anthologies you want.

Set up a YouTube or music streaming service playlist and share the guilt-free, cheesy goodness, even if you’re not in the same room.

Adding to the playlist encourages people to think about the day ahead of time and get excited. Plus, it’s a great way to slip “Baby Shark” in there 15 times to wind up your relatives ahead of time.

2. Virtual potluck

Wait, isn’t the whole point of a potluck to convince people to bring food to your house? Well, yes. But it’s also about the personal connections and stories behind the chow.

Put together a family-favorite dish or one of our easy Thanksgiving recipes, and share the story of the dish or the process of making it.

Be sure to swap recipes with all of your invitees before the day — perhaps setting a random recipe challenge is an interesting way to approach a potluck without getting to actually taste what’s in the pots.

Who knows, maybe this tradition will progress to surprising dishes and challenges in Thanksgivings to come.

3. Make sure everyone’s comfortable with the tech — including you

If you’re one of the many people who now use Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams for work, you might be very familiar with the ability to mute everyone, share your screen, or create side rooms for games and separate conversations.

Being new to video conferencing programs doesn’t mean you can’t offer to host either — many of them are super intuitive to use and easily accessible without having to install anything.

However, if you’re a full newbie, you might want to test it out a few days before and run through a few tutorials online. It’d be a shame for you to waste hours fiddling with settings on the day.

We’re really hoping this name doesn’t have to catch on.

4. Turkey-off

Let’s be real: If your folks take turns basting and roasting the prize bird on a yearly rotation, it’s likely they’re raising their eyebrows tasting the competition a year later.

Have some fun with the fact that you each have a kitchen at your disposal for once and compete for the mantle of Best Roast, whether it’s the traditional turkey, chicken, or a veggie alternative.

And everybody wins, really. You all get a damn good roast out of it, as well as a wishbone to snap and a bunch of leftovers for tomorrow.

Plus, if you’re all cooking at the same time, it’s a great way to share tips and engage in the same activity while chatting and catching up. And you know you get that delicious, roasting smell at the same time, which is one of the major highs of Thanksgiving.

5. A twist on the wish bone

The snapping of the wishbone is a Thanksgiving tradition that you might think doesn’t translate through a webcam — and it doesn’t.

But you don’t have to do it the traditional way. Set different stakes — and bring online games into it.

  1. Have everyone take the wishbone from their turkey (the two-pronged fork-shaped bone that connects the chest to the neck for the less accomplished carvers out there) and get ready to snap it.
  2. If people have joined in pairs or groups (say, a whole family or a couple), they can snap it amongst themselves. If you win, getting the bigger half, you’re free from turkey responsibilities for next year’s get-together (which will, hopefully, be a far less digital affair).
  3. Lose, and you face off against people outside of your household in online games later to see who’s landed with hosting the whole of Thanksgiving next year. Oh, boy.
  4. Whether it’s Drawful-style pictionary carnage, setting aside a room on Zoom for a short trivia quiz, or busting out multiplayer Tic Tac Toe online, there’ll be simple, fun ways to engage everyone and create some stories for next year despite the distance.
  5. The winners of the household round can play too, of course — it’s just that whoever comes last hosts next year.

This year, the wishbone could be luckier than ever.

6. Icebreaker games

Communicating over Zoom is simply not the same as sitting around the table with your family and friends (although the mute button may well become your ally when Uncle Lenny pipes up with his sh*t again) (Not today, Lenny).

It can be important, then, to warm people up and get them used to the platform.

Icebreakers can be as simple as everyone getting time to sum up how they are and what they’re up to. You can also set up little games, like getting everyone to say which Pixar character they’d be or reading out a funny limerick each.

Whatever you do, get conversation to flow and you’ve started that all-important Thanksgiving connection.

7. Look the part

There’s no need to go overboard with floral centerpieces or intricate decorations. It’s about the grub and the company, really. But keeping the atmosphere intact is really important, this year of all years.

If you’re hankering for a little holiday spirit, cover the tables with festive tablecloths and mark each place setting with a mini gourd or pumpkin from the farmer’s market. Make sure some of these adornments are visible in your background.

Honestly, this year of all years, people will just be grateful for the company, digital or otherwise. But making an effort will go a long way to keeping it special.

That also means dressing up — wear a nice shirt or dress, and don’t make it just another Zoom chat in your pajamas (looking at you, last four work meetings).

Alternatively, set up a theme, and have everyone go fancy dress in their own homes.

8. Put aside time for gratitude

A really nourishing group activity (and one that’s psychologically nourishing and important for well-being, according to research) would be to go round and really focus on what inspires gratitude in each person in the Zoomsgiving chat.

Giving everyone a chance to focus on the main emotional theme of the holiday will still be a huge moment for connection. If they’re at Thanksgiving with you, there’s a strong chance you feature in their gratitude list.

Now more than ever, it’s time to take stock.

9. Christmas movie drinking games

If you were always planning to get a little drunk, playing a drinking game with those in your Thanksgiving crew who also get a little bit wavy (or just sip some brandy with your grandparents, whatever works) can make your day.

Thanksgiving ushers in the pre-Christmas schmaltz avalanche (and an absolute treasury of the most predictable romantic films ever committed to celluloid).

You now have license to whip out an absolutely dreadful Christmas movie, and take a swig every time:

  • A character says the word Christmas.
  • A character calls it their favorite time of year.
  • There are decorations in the shot.
  • A character restates their central dilemma out loud (“I just… don’t have much creative control in my day job and want to run a business carving ice sculptures of elks, and I’m sad because I can’t.“)

We give you roughly a third of any of these movies’ runtimes before you’re talking absolute nonsense and having a blast.

Alternatively, you can just pull out a more watchable movie and simply have some brews and watch “Home Alone” on an app that allows you to stream with your friends, like Netflix Party or similar.

Or hang out and watch it alcohol-free, if that’s more your flavor of Thanksgiving.

10. Put up Christmas decorations

It’s about time to dust off those attic-banished baubles one more time and turn all of your furniture sparkly. So why not make it a communal affair? Have the last thing you all do together be setting up decorations at the same time.

That way, when you spent the next month gawking at your festive handiwork, you can look back on putting it up with your family.

It’s not the Hallmark log-by-the-fire scenario you dreamed of, but it’s important to stay connected.

Thanksgiving dinner can descend into chaos at the best of times.

Moving that interaction onto Zoom isn’t always the best recipe for fluent and friendly chatter, especially when your more technophobic relatives get to grips with the format.

11. Don’t be afraid to use mute

If you’re an accomplished hand at Zoom and similar programs, be sure to give yourself host privileges with the opportunity to mute everyone, step in, and announce the next game or dinner course.

It’s not rude, so long as you give everyone a warning. If you’re not exactly a public speaker, have notes up on your screen to introduce each part of the evening.

People should also make use of the text chat if they’re able. This can help you avoid that all-crushing cross chatter than can completely derail even the most seasoned Zoomers and Zoomees.

12. Try and avoid politics and depressing topics

For the same reason you should stick to upbeat subjects on a first date, politics is probably a subject best left at the virtual door for this one.

We’re sure, like us, you have passionate feelings about… well, just about everything at the moment. Rarely has there been more division, anger, and ill-feeling due to political differences — even within families and friendship groups.

You’re almost certainly going to have relatives with different views. And you’re going to have to find a way to spend all day with them. So if conversation heads in that direction, be the distraction and start another game.

It’s hard to avoid, but you’re trying to make this a day to remember for the right reasons. And if people start rage-quitting the chat, all that playlist-prepping has been for nothing.

13. Don’t be afraid to break off and hang out with one person

We all have one person in the family to whom we’re super close, or a cousin with whom we’d disappear and play video games for an hour or so on any other Thanksgiving.

So set up some online gaming with them, or set up a screening party on Netflix (or similar) with a movie you both love. Or just create a side room for some slightly less family-friendly chat.

Keep the Zoom call on so you can keep tabs, but you should be relaxing with family. So relax how you’d usually relax and enjoy yourself.

However topsy-turvy things went in your life this year, you’ve still got your family and close friends to be super thankful for.

You know it’s going to be very different this year. So rise to it, take initiative, start games, make and eat good food, and create even more memories — however bizarre they may be.

Most importantly of all, perhaps, keep it no pressure and fun. Come up with several games ahead of time that you can play online together, swap some recipes, and get some tunes in a playlist. If people don’t feel like joining in, just talk. They’re your people, at the end of the day.

Just try to dedicate the day to gratitude, peace, and good vibes. You still get to watch some approximation of the Macy’s Day Parade on TV.

Seasonal loneliness can kill

This year has been especially tough on people with preexisting mental health conditions, and it also brought newfound depression and anxiety to people who never expected to experience either.

Even if physical restrictions and guidelines mean you can’t invite everyone, you can still reach out and let people know you’re thinking of them, especially when you know they can’t see their family.

If a person you know expressions the intention to harm themselves or others, encourage them to speak to Samaritans.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or contact the Crisis Text Line by messaging “HELLO” to 741741 to help them access the support they need.

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Even if you can’t get home for Thanksgiving, you can throw a bomb-ass dinner party for the people you like (and people that could really use the company, as well).

As long as you communicate well ahead of the day, facilitate conversation, and make sure everyone’s included, it’s still a Thanksgiving of sorts.

So happy first (and hopefully final) Zoomsgiving!