Even as borders are starting to reopen across Australia, many families are still staying home over the holidays. For many of us, this time of year can be difficult as we’re reminded of those we haven’t been able to connect with in person for the past couple of years.

There’s no way an online Christmas could possibly rival one in person. But, with a little effort and planning, you could make the holidays a little brighter for some loved ones unable to share the time together.

Here are a few tips on how to make a virtual Christmas as close to the real deal as you can.

Watch sappy Christmas movies together

Sappy (and sometimes not so sappy) Christmas movies are always a must every holiday season. You may protest they’re awful, but deep down you know you secretly love them. So, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, get your family or your closest friends together and host a Christmas movie marathon you can watch together.

There are a few ways you can remotely watch movies together, depending on which streaming service you want to use.

Disney+ and Amazon Prime both have integrated group watch/watch party options in the platform. Disney+ allows up to 7 people to watch together which you can start by choosing the movie you want to watch, pressing “Group Watch”, then sending the link to whoever you want to invite. Amazon Prime works similarly except you can invite up to 100 people and it offers a chat function so you can make all those witty comments you’re so well known for.

Netflix has a great selection of those sappy Hallmark Christmas movies, but sadly they don’t have an integrated group watch function. Instead, you can use a program like Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party) to connect with family and watch your fave holiday movies.

For other streaming services like Stan or Binge, you might need to find a Chrome extension or use the “Share screen” function on a video conferencing service like Zoom, Google Meet or Discord.

Play games together

A classic Christmas holidays tradition in most Aussie households is getting competitive - whether it’s a fierce battle of Trivial Pursuit or some savage backyard cricket. If you’re missing the old sibling rivalry or just want some friendly competition and a few laughs to make your virtual remote Christmas feel normal again, there are a few options that are inclusive of the gamers and non-gamers in your family.

Jackbox party games are a great place to start. Jackbox games come in packs of 5-6 offbeat party games that don’t necessarily require any gaming skills so are easy for people of all ages and abilities to join in. The games are open to people to play remotely too, and are easy to set up - particularly using Steam. The Jackbox party packs can be a little patchy in quality though (here's a great Reddit thread that ranks all the packs and individual games), but there are heaps to choose from so you’re sure to find something your family will love!

Steam also has a wide selection of Remote Play games designed for, as the name suggests, playing remotely. The games available maybe skew a bit more towards traditional gaming but there’s a lot to choose from so with some digging you might find something great for the whole family -- or just the gamers of the group.

Cook together

Being separated by distance doesn't mean you can't still steal grandma's famous shortbread recipe!

The kitchen is the heart of everything at Christmas and if you’re not able to join the family for a meal, why not still share the experience together?

Nothing special is required here really except maybe a video conferencing app like Zoom or Google Meet, although any video calling app will work fine. Set up your phone or tablet on your kitchen counter and call.

Organise a time when you’re both going to be cooking -- hopefully in similar time zones -- and chat and cook away like you would any other Christmas. It won’t be the same of course, and the things you're cooking don’t have to be identical (although a fun cook-off could be fun if you want to get extra competitive), but it will be as close to the real thing and being part of the festivities as you might get remotely.

If you have kids, or you’re a giant kid with next to zero artistic skills whatsoever (guilty!), you could even try decorating Christmas biscuits together over a video call. Get all your supplies set up on a table, set your device up nearby, and chatter away while making wonderful and delicious creations!

Gift exchange with a difference

Everyone does Secret Santa. But sometimes the mail doesn’t arrive on time and someone misses out, or someone sends a digital gift so the giddy childish glee of unwrapping a gift is just lost. It’s just not quite the same.

Instead, you could try having some fun with it! Whether you call it White Elephant, Yankee Swap, or Dirty Santa, the rules are just the same. In an IRL situation, the game is played thusly: Everyone brings a gift and is assigned a number at random. Then, each person takes turns at either unwrapping a new gift or stealing someone else’s gift. Once everyone has a present, you’re done!

Many people play with house rules too, like a present can only be stolen a maximum number of times or if a gift was stolen from you, you must unwrap a new one.

Despite that disastrous episode of The Office, playing this can be a lot of fun, even remotely.

To play this online and make the gameplay simple, you can use a site like White Elephant Online that sets up the whole thing for you and is free to use for 10 or less participants (as long as it’s for personal use and not part of a work Christmas do). With the online version, you submit images of gifts you buy online, like at Amazon, and once the game is over, you find out who got your gift so you can sort out postage.

Playing this way could be a lot of fun, especially if gifts are themed or if you try to bring some silly humour into it. Just don't be that one guy who buys an iPod when there's a $10 limit.

Staying connected over the holidays

Being apart from family over the holidays can be really hard. Even as borders start to reopen again, the risks and increased price of travel can make it difficult to see loved ones who are in different cities, states, or countries.

That’s why making the effort to stay connected in whatever way we can is so important over the break. Even just a small gesture can help brighten the spirits of your family who aren’t able to physically be with you. And, with the magic of a high-speed internet connection, that distance can feel that little bit smaller.