Zoom : Big holiday celebrations move online

Easter for college student Kayley Ng usually means a big family gathering. Her mom’s five siblings come up to the Chicago area with their kids and spouses for a huge special get-together that happens only once annually. This year, that tradition’s being challenged, along with the holiday plans of millions of others as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt daily life.

The pandemic took over the US just as two major holidays were coming up: Easter and Passover. Big gatherings with family and friends, as well as religious services, are no longer being held in-person. Instead, people are turning to video calls to replace their usual holiday traditions: this means egg hunts, Easter brunch, seders, and even afikomen hiding will take place online.

Ng says she’s in charge of organizing her family’s Zoom call, which includes her mom’s five siblings, her 10 cousins, and seven first cousins once removed. She anticipates some technical difficulties, although she’s available to whoever needs help.

“I’m just gonna send out the link and on the day of, be like ‘if you have questions, text me or email me,’” she says. She already sent out one family-wide email with instructions on how to access Zoom and join a call, but people might not realize they don’t know what they’re doing until it’s too late.

Although her mom’s upset that she won’t be able to see her family, Ng says she also seems to accept it. “[She’s] just trying to make sure the family’s okay, but we can still find a way to all communicate with each other,” Ng says. The family also usually attends church together in the morning, so Ng says they might try to find a live stream to watch.

People will do smaller egg hunts at home with their kids

The churches, for their part, have been preparing for Easter for weeks. Kevin Eckstrom, who heads up communications for the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, says the church already live-streams its services on YouTube and Facebook Live, with YouTube being more reliable. Easter’s always the “banner day,” and typically, the cathedral is packed with 3,000 people in the building, he says. He expects the live stream to reach even more people this year.

“The good news is that we’re actually able to reach more people online than we could even ever hope to house in the building, so our online viewership is reaching about 10 times as many people as we would have on a typical Sunday,” he says. “And we are preparing to have a huge nationwide audience with us on Sunday morning.”

People in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and England have all tuned in, he says, among others — and that’s just for regular Sunday services. The biggest challenge to the remote services is keeping the whole operation to a skeleton crew — only around 10 people will be in the entire building on Easter Sunday. Normally, Eckstrom says there’s a choir of 25 to 30 people surrounded with flowers onstage, and people take communion. That’s changed with these live streams.

Now, only one or two musicians will be in the building, and instead of taking communion, the clergy are taking “spiritual” communions in which they consecrate the bread and wine without actually consuming it. They say a special prayer, too, which expresses that they want to take communion but can’t at this time.

Church services are being designed with remote viewers in mind

This decision was made with an eye toward “what the online experience is like,” Eckstrom says. “If [the viewers] can’t take communion then maybe we shouldn’t either.”

The preachers are already becoming practiced at speaking to an empty cathedral, despite usually relying on people’s body language and reactions for speaking cues. Their sermons also address the pandemic and pray for people on the frontlines. Washing your hands is now considered an “act of love” because it prevents others from getting sick. And reaching out to others is essential, they say, even if it’s just a video call.

For many Jewish people, much of Passover, a holiday about plagues, revolves around dinner on the first and second night of the holiday, called a seder. Rabbis are figuring out ways to host the first night seder over Zoom. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who leads the Reform Judaism community in the UK, says she plans to host a first-night seder at her home and live-stream it over Zoom to whoever wants to attend, as well as to all the Jewish care homes in the country. She says she’ll have three people at home — herself, her husband, and her daughter — instead of the 23 people who usually attend. Hundreds of people had already signed up to attend as early as two weeks ago.

Her daughter will be the only one to look for the afikoman, a piece of matzo that’s hidden and found during the seder and then eaten as dessert. She says she’s also loosened up the rules around kosher for Passover foods. Jews abstain from eating most grain products during the holiday, but she recognizes some people might not be able to leave their homes or find certain products. “The only thing that matters is your health,” she says. (Kosher restaurants and Jewish organizations are also making Passover deliveries to people who can’t leave the house or would prefer a seder be delivered to their doorstep.)

But other sects of Judaism aren’t able to stream, or at least do so with a rabbi’s approval. Last week, Israel’s chief rabbis determined people couldn’t stream their seders because Jews typically don’t use electronic devices during Shabbat or holidays. Other rabbis disagree with them, saying COVID-19 is an extreme situation that puts people’s lives at risk if they congregate. There’s no formal answer to how to handle Passover during a pandemic, of course, so people will likely do what feels right to them.

The seders will definitely continue, however, and their messages might feel more relevant than usual. Janner-Klausner says she’ll be keeping the seder as traditional as possible and end it with the usual phrase of, “next year in Jerusalem.”

“Really what we’re saying is next year, let’s just be together.”