For many, tomorrow’s COVID Christmas will be a time of muddling through video calls and figuring out ways to see friends and family who are stuck elsewhere.
Countries where many Australians have family are in lockdown, while several Australian states and territories have shut their borders to Sydneysiders.
But if 2020 has been a year of Zoom fatigue and internet burnout, it’s also been the year of the innovative technological workaround.
This year’s low-key Christmas miracle might be the wonder of a video call on a smudged laptop screen — and all the other ways we’re trying to stay connected.
Based in the UK, the small company Encore Musicians has been providing “musical messages” since the early days of the pandemic.
Often, they’re messages between the UK and Australia — the customer requests a song, usually with personalised lyrics, and a professional musician performs the song on video for whomever the customer nominates.
Speaking from lockdown in Wales, CEO James McAulay shared some stories of homesick Aussies in London, or poms stuck Down Under.
He’s recorded bagpipers for funerals in the UK being streamed to family in Australia.
His musicians have performed Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven as a birthday present from a woman in London to her brother in Sydney.
Another Londoner engaged the company to perform Highway to Hell for her sister in Sydney — but with her own lyrics:
Stuck in London
No way out
No more tickets to Australia.
So I’m rockin out this song
I got something left to say to ya:
It’s your day
Hope you’re having fun whatever you do.
We’re on lockdown,
So are you
Time to party in your living room.
Chorus: Happy Birthday!
Song requests ‘tinged with sadness’ this Christmas
As the pandemic progressed, Mr McAulay noticed the type of song people chose to send each other changed.
“In April and May, it was very emotionally charged. It felt like the world had come to a bit of a standstill at that point,” he said.
“People were sending songs to people who had COVID and were in the ICU and weren’t allowed to get out.”
Back then, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive topped the charts.
Now it’s songs more “tinged with sadness” — Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, or Elton John’s Your Song.
‘Zoom Santas’ for children in lockdown
In Western Sydney, a small promotions company has become an international purveyor of “Zoom Santas” — 15-minute Zoom calls with Saint Nick at the North Pole.
They’ve proved popular with families in the United States where some children — due to lockdown — can’t visit the man in red at the mall this Christmas.
The company’s two Sydney-based professional Santas are booked out for the whole of December, said Straight Down the Line Promotion’s Rosalind Palisi.
“We’ve done the whole east coast of Australia and now I’m international.”
Her Santas may have Australian accents, but she assured she would not tolerate them appearing on Zoom in bathers or with a sunny beach background.
“It’s strictly a Santa visit as per normal,” she said.
“No-one likes what’s going on, but the joy of Christmas shouldn’t be taken away from children.”
A very merry VR Christmas
On the island of Maui in Hawaii, Kristin Sherwood is planning to spend Christmas Day in virtual reality with her parents, who are in their 70s and several thousand kilometres away.
“For my mum, the stress of worrying about me travelling and possibly getting infected — and possibly infecting them — just wasn’t worth it,” she said.
Teaching her parents to use their brand new Oculus VR headsets hasn’t been easy, but they’ve made progress.
For the big day, she’s built a virtual cabin with a roaring log fire, family photos on the walls and a suite of avatars in festive knitwear.
“We’re going to have a big Christmas party,” she said.
“It’s a way to keep them safe and to just connect in a way that’s just so much more immersive.
“You actually feel like you’re there with the other person even though they’re a cartoon version of themselves.”
That said, she admits sometimes you can’t do any better than video calls.
When it’s time to unwrap presents or eat lunch, they’ll remove the headsets and open the laptops.
“It’s better than nothing,” Ms Sherwood said.