Connecting During the Holidays: Setting the Table for Change

Thanksgiving TableBy Jaimie Hutchison, MA, LPC and various MSU contributors

Seven months ago, our world changed. We are all navigating numerous changes in our work and personal lives. People are ready to go back to normal, or at least move forward to the next normal. Yet, here we are, waiting for the day when it is safe to do so. It is important that we stay vigilant so that we can be healthy when COVID-19 is a thing of the past. With that said, many of us are feeling fatigued, frustrated, impatient, and are reaching our limits of stress tolerance. With the holiday season upon us, let’s think back to last Thanksgiving. 

Thirteen family members gathered at our house for dinner. The table was expanded as far as it could go and set simply, but pretty, with a fall theme. We all packed in around the dining room table after going through the buffet line in the kitchen and loading our plates with food made from family recipes. We had aunt J’s corn casserole, aunt D’s deviled eggs, squash from my uncle’s garden, mom’s homemade apple sauce, and of course turkey, several pies… more food than 13 people could eat in one meal. After settling in, we each drew a pipe cleaner. Each pipe cleaner’s color corresponded with a theme: red was a person, orange was a place, green was a food, blue was a thing, and purple was your choice. We took turns sharing the things we were grateful for from pizza to our parents, from up north to fuzzy slippers and campfires. One of my uncles would inevitably place a huge bottle of catsup in front of me, because as a child I put catsup on turkey. Then, during the meal when getting ready to dig into aunt K’s banana bread I would ask one of my uncles to pass me the butter. They would hand it to me and just as I went to grab it, they would turn the dish sideways and my hand would be covered in butter. The table would erupt with laughter and I would wonder how I fell for this, once again. That was it. We talked, remembered family members that were no longer with us, we laughed and ate until we were full. Then, some guests would meander into the living room to watch football and others would remain at the table for some spirited card games. It was simple, it was soul filling. 

Today, I looked at that table, still extended as far as it could go. At one end, there was a puzzle in progress that has been there since May. In the middle, there was a paint by numbers painting my daughter was working on. At the other end, were painting supplies used to repaint our walls. Somewhere in the middle was a stack of games we used over the past two months. Times have changed and our table reflects this.  

I have mixed emotions thinking about the upcoming holiday season. On one hand, I am looking forward to some much-needed time to recharge. On the other hand, I am already grieving the loss of time spent with family. People need connection. How can we plan, prepare, and connect in a new way this year? Here are some ideas and contributions from our fellow Spartans. Afterall, we are stronger when we work together. 

Virtual Holiday Movie Watching Party

Charlie Root, production manager, Residential and Hospitality Services organized Google Hangout Video Chat or Zoom sessions to have movie watching parties. He invites watchers, they take a moment to catch up and then do the 3, 2, 1 countdown to hit play together. These movie watching parties started to introduce a friend to movies that the others consider classics like Wayne’s World and Caddyshack. They now watch a movie each week. Each person takes turns choosing the movie.  Charlie reported that they have now watched over 25 movies together. They are currently watching Halloween inspired movies. Could you imagine watching The Grinch, A Christmas Story, or It’s a Wonderful Life with several generations of your family members? 

Happiness Shocks

Two of my colleagues have children. I put together “happiness shocks” for them. I made bags including Halloween cups, light up necklaces, decorate your own pumpkin sticker kits, snacks and a few personalized items for the families. One family has three children, so I put a craft kit in the bag so that the kids would have something to do that may give their mom a few minutes to herself. The other family has two children. One of them is a spirited kiddo who I knew would love the Halloween joke book that I included. Then, I set up a time to deliver or have the bags picked up from my porch, socially distanced. I made 14 bags total and included each girl in my Girl Scout troop, two of my colleagues and a few neighbors. The texts I received from my Girl Scouts were priceless. My favorite was, “OMG I LOVE THIS. AHHHH. THANK YOU SO MUCH ILYSM OMG. I LOVE EVERYTHING YOU ARE SO AMAZING. YOU MADE MY WEEK.” Nothing shows more appreciation than a stream of consciousness Instagram message from a 14-year-old. Think about delivering a happiness shock of your own. You can do this for anyone. It is about the thought you put into it. I recently put one together for my mom which featured a bottle of wine, cheese, crackers, pie and a cute ceramic pumpkin that another MSU colleague’s mother in law made in her pottery studio. My mom loved it, and even though we are socially distancing, she knew we were thinking of her. 

Zoom Crafts and Eats Parties

Debbie Richards, fiscal officer from the College of Arts and Letters, is involved with a women’s leadership group. One activity they have completed was creating an appetizer and beverage together. Each member shopped for their own supplies and then they met via Zoom to complete the activity. They have also made a craft together, virtually. What a great idea! You could create homemade holiday cards as a group or make a family recipe together, virtually. 

Virtual Attendance for Religious or Community Events 

Dr. Shina Alade’, Assistant Professor, College of Communication Arts and Sciences, shared her experience virtually attending Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the Jewish New Year. I rang in 5781 a little differently this year than years past. It felt harder than usual to take a moment to pause and reflect, but I was thankful that the high holidays always remind me and create space to do so. My partner and I attended together from our home. Wishing everyone a very sweet and happy new year. 
This is a great example of how to keep traditions even if they are done differently. Think of how you could do the same. 

Have a Concert Watch Party

Dr. Barbara Roberts, Executive Director of the MSU WorkLife Office and Senior Advisor to the Provost on Work Life shared this story. While I was in grad school in Boston, my friends and I enjoyed a lot of Irish music and dance. I was hoping to go to a Celtic music festival this fall, but it went online so we had to watch the livestream from home. I sent the link to my friend in Boston, and we watched “together”, texting each other about different bands and instruments, sending pictures of us in our living rooms with our dogs and fireplaces and families, hundreds of miles apart. I could see her husband bouncing their lap dog to the music, on the same beat I was stomping to.

This is an excellent idea! Do you go see the Nutcracker each holiday season, or take in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra? Find a video that you can share with family and connect.  

Tech Support for Connection

A senior specialist on campus shared this touching idea. I have a sibling that lives hundreds of miles away and has almost no tech skills.  He has an iPad that he uses for sending text messages but that is pretty much the extent of his tech skills. It took us the longest time, but we finally were able to get help and get his account set up so that he could use it to facetime.  That has been a great tool for him to communicate and “visit” with other family members that have also been isolated since March.   

You might consider challenging people to reach out to those they are physically close to them to see if they can help advance the tech skills that can be used to keep people connected.  The simplest things like creating accounts and passwords can be roadblocks for some. This is a heartwarming idea. For many reasons, some people may not have the tech to connect virtually, or they may not have the skills. Let’s write handwritten notes, text photos, and connect via the telephone. When roadblocks stand in our way, let’s take this specialist’s lead, and find a way around them. 

Video Tour of Your Holiday Decor

Amanda Vasas, Assistant Instructor, Department of Advertising and Public Relations shared two inspiring ideas for connecting: video tour and mystery guest. 

For Halloween this year, my kids and I made a short iPhone video tour of our spooky decorations (after they helped me decorate) to send to their grandparents. This would be great for any holiday. You could create a holiday decorating tour video after you decorate and share it with the people who are usually with you on that holiday. Maybe you will even get some videos in return. 

Guess the Mystery Guest

Instead of trick-or-treating, we plan to all dress up, and decorate the bedroom doors in our house with a festive wreath and faux pumpkin outside...behind each door will be a bowl of different candy, and behind some of the doors, we're going to try to have our phones/devices set up with Facetime calls with various family (grandparents, aunts, etc.). 

Think of how you could have a mystery guest virtually, then at the holidays, you could go door to door and connect with each other. To make it more fun, give clues about who is behind the door, and see if someone can guess who the mystery guest is. 

Zoom Calls

Jeff Brodie, Management Analyst, MSU Human Resources shared his experience with Zoom calls. I have some close friends who I can only see when the outdoor temperatures are reasonable.  So, my Godson (15 years old) sets up Zoom meetings periodically so we can keep in touch face to face.  They are only 40 minutes each, but he just sends a new invitation when the first meeting ends.  We enjoy them as a nice change from phone conversations.

This is a great reminder on how we can still connect virtually. 

Build a Bigger Table?

Angie Wendelberger, Costume Shop Supervisor - Academic Specialist, MSU, Department of Theatre shared her determined father’s act of love for their family.

My father built a table outside in their backyard that will allow for 4 different families to social distance together for Thanksgiving. The table is huge! He is renting a porta potty and has purchased multiple outdoor heaters to keep people warm. He is joking that "we are doing Thanksgiving this year like it was originally done".  I am making the whole family (there are 14 of us) matching Thanksgiving Day masks and fleece "Snuggie" style blankets if I have the time.  
Everyone in my family is about an hour away from my parent's house so traveling for an hour or two is doable. I know a lot of people don't have that luxury. It's elaborate - I know.

Maybe you are not a builder, but you have some card tables that you can use. Maybe you can socially distance in a way that people can still be together. However you celebrate, I hope it fills your soul. We could all use some of that right about now. 

More things to consider

Cookie decorating kits

Drop off some sugar cookies, cut out cookies, or even premade tubes of sugar cookie dough, sprinkles, and frosting. 

Deliveries of food, pies, etc.

Drop off homemade meals or pie, or bring a care package of ingredients for a meal. You can also use food delivery services (Grubhub, etc.) for those relatives who are far away or order from a restaurant who does delivery, like Panera. If they live in an area without food delivery, you could consider ordering a meal from a national chain like Omaha Steaks or Schwan’s. You could also send a gift card for a local restaurant. 

Holiday scavenger hunt

Set up a scavenger hunt that leads to a gift or a prize. This could be a fun way to engage younger members of your household or bubble that could be fun and exciting. 
Phone calls: Never underestimate the power of a scheduled or check in phone call. Text messages are also a way to check in and let others know you are thinking of them. Send a photo of yourself or your family to loved ones that may miss seeing your smiling face(s).

Handwritten letters or cards: Take a moment to write a letter or send a card to the people in your life. Getting something in the mail aside from bills or junk mail can spark a smile.

Virtual book club

Several faculty and staff members reported participating in a virtual book clubs, ranging in purpose from learning to entertainment through connecting and sharing. Book clubs can include people of any age and nearly any topic. 

Holiday lights caravan

Do you have family or friends nearby? Socially distance by going on a holiday lights tour together, in your own vehicles. Chat on speakerphone about your favorites or join a Zoom call after the trip to discuss! Are you miles apart from your family and friends? Each of you could take photos or short videos of your favorite holiday lights and gather on Zoom to share them, or even email a group your favorites. 

As we think of the change at our table this year, some may feel the excitement to innovate to do things in a new way, or to have low-key celebrations this year. For others, it may take a toll on our energy, mood, or mental health. As we navigate all of this, let’s take a moment to review some of the resources that are available.

  • WorkLife Office: Available for consultations and resource orientation on a variety of work-life related topics, including family, wellness, and more. Email or Visit
  • EAP: The Employee Assistance Program is available to provide counseling via telehealth to MSU faculty, staff and eligible family members. EAP also has a list of community-based therapists for referrals. Email or visit
  • Heath4U: H4U offers health and wellness courses, coaching services, and departmental services. You will also find articles, resources, and recipes published by Heath4U staff. Email Heath4U at or visit
  • MSU Human Resources: Contact HR about classes, professional development and policies regarding leave, etc. Email the HR Solutions Center at 517-353-4434 or email
  • Academic Human Resources: There is a list of who to contact for which unit on the home page.

There are several national 1-800 numbers which are available 24 hours, 365 days per year.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 
  • Michigan 211:  Available to help you with referrals and resources of all kinds from housing resources to financial assistance. Contact them by dialing 211 or visit 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. 

We can do hard things, and we can do them easier when we are connected. You are not alone.