How to Celebrate Birthdays, Holidays and Special Occasions When You Can’t Be Together

By Katherine Stano on June 16th, 2020
Ideas Media Cards Elevating Special Occasions1 General Gratitude

We’ve all had to get a little more creative when it’s time to celebrate our loved ones. How do you make a birthday feel special—especially when it’s a big one? How will we celebrate moms on Mother’s Day? And how do you make a special occasion feel really special when the days tend to run together?

We’ve been so inspired by all of the inventive, caring gestures we’ve seen in the world lately, so we’re sharing a few (with permission) and suggesting some of our own. We hope you’ll add your own twist and make some truly meaningful moments for your family and friends.

Ideas Media Cards Elevating Special Occasions1 General Gratitude

How to celebrate birthdays when you cannot be together

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Just because traveling or large in-person gatherings aren’t an option, it doesn’t mean there can’t be birthday celebrations. From online surprise parties to easy-but-over-the-top decorations, here are some loving ways friends and family are making birthdays memorable.

Throw a Birthday Surprise Party

“For my friend’s 40th birthday, we’re doing a Zoom surprise party. He thinks he’s going to chat with just one of his friends, but when he joins the meeting, there’ll be about 30 people waiting for him.” —John W.

“My wife Cori’s birthday is this Saturday. Our 13-year-old, Zoe, created an invitation for a surprise parade through the cul-de-sac. She’s going to tell her mom she and the neighbor girl are going for a (socially distanced) walk. They’re going to walk to the park down the street where about twenty cars full of Cori’s friends, in-town family, and co-workers will gather. Then Zoe will race home and Cori’s best friend will lead the caravan up to our house. I’ll have Cori outside somehow—probably doing some suburban driveway day-drinking—and Zoe will serve as grand marshal leading the cars, with Cori’s parents on FaceTime so they can participate from afar. The whole thing was Zoe’s idea.” —Zach L.

“We had a Zoom birthday party for my father-in-law, Gary, in early April. We really didn’t do anything special—just chatted and hung out for an hour and a half. I played with my cat for part of the time, which was entertaining for the teenagers on the call. I noticed my niece and nephew quietly tuning out and trickling away at different times, too. I think that’s the best, when virtual meetings can be casual like that without the need for everyone to be ‘on’ at every moment.”—Keely C.

Try these ideas for surprise celebrations

  • Give the birthday person a night in at the movies. Get everyone online, pop some popcorn, and watch a movie together. Apps like Rabbit, SyncPlay, and Netflix Party make it easy.
  • Celebrations matter even more when we give back. Coordinate friends and family and donate to a charity in the person-of-honor’s name. Some nonprofits will mail a thank-you card—or you can compile the information yourself for a big reveal.
  • Shower them with cards. With a little advance notice, you can make sure their mailbox is filled to overflowing on the big day.

Make the experience meaningful

“We had to cancel my son’s 5th birthday party. Instead, we filled the living room with balloons the night before so he’d see them as soon as he woke up in the morning, I made him a four-layer cake, and we sang to him at lunch and let him open gifts from us and our out-of-town family. And he got to choose what he wanted to eat all day—which turned out to be a weird amount of pickles.” —Melissa W.

“The only holiday I’ve come up with a virtual plan for so far is [my husband’s] birthday. We always travel for a National Park hiking trip/vacation, which obviously won’t happen this year. So I’m planning to take advantage of the virtual National Park tours that are offered. If the weather is good, we’ll hike around here. If it’s not, we’ll plan an indoor picnic with some of our favorite hiking snacks. In the past I’ve made photo books from our trips, and I’m hoping to catch up on last year’s to give as one of his gifts.” —Alyssa D.

Try these ideas for birthday activities

  • Miss those therapeutic birthday happy hours? Set a date with your squad, dress up in something fancy—from the waist up, if you want to keep your comfy pants on—and toast your birthday girl online with her favorite adult beverage.
  • Incorporate the birthday gift into a house-wide scavenger hunt.
  • Set the stage for a special celebration with decorations you have at home. Hang the Christmas lights and set them to twinkle. Make fancy cake toppers. Head to your backyard for table decorations and set a fancy table. And go nuts with tissue paper: Make a tassel garland, paper vines, confetti, or paper flowers.

Create super-personal birthday gifts

“I have a dear friend’s 80th birthday coming up toward the end of the month. So what her daughter has decided to do is to have us all create videos that she will combine together as a surprise for her mother. It isn’t quite the same as being there, but it’s the best we can do at this time.” —Joan V.

“I made a homemade card, wrapped a present using the grocery store print ad, and opened a cookbook and tried a new recipe in order to make the celebration still happen. So get creative with what you have on hand and it helps to lift you out of the doldrums.” —AnnaLisa L.

“It was my nephew’s birthday yesterday and my mother-in-law organized a big gathering for extended family on Zoom. Each individual family prepared a little something for him: Some made cards, some played an instrument, some showed off LEGO creations, etc. and we took turns sharing them.” —Anita S

“For a 5-year-old’s birthday, I had a video created of my friend’s son dressed up as Spiderman. ‘Spidey’ is going to text his mom with the video today.” —Holley M.

Try these ideas for personalized parties

  • Take a little extra time writing a birthday card or letter.
  • Would you usually celebrate by seeing your favorite musician or band? Send an invitation in the form of a concert ticket—electronic or on paper. Once you’re online, have a dance party to your favorite songs or share screens on Zoom or Skype and watch YouTube music videos. Don’t forget to put on your concert t-shirts—bonus points for dressing up like your favorite ’80s hair band or ’90s grunge rockers.
  • Have dinner together online. Order from the birthday person’s favorite local restaurant and arrange to have meals delivered to all participants’ houses at about the same time. Use stuff you find around your house to recreate the restaurant vibe as much as you can—from candlelight to wall décor—and mail them to the guest of honor or drop them off. (Get out those Crayola crayons and markers to create artwork and window views.) Enlist their family members or roommates to play servers for a realistic touch.

How to celebrate mom from a distance

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Whether you live down the road, across the hall, or are a pro at long-distance hugs with your mama, there are lots of ways to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. Love is stronger than any amount of separation—and we’ve got lots of ways to make a meaningful connection.

Of course, you can use any of the above ideas for birthdays to celebrate Mother’s Day when you’re apart. But here are a few more:

“My mother is 80, and if necessary I would make the three-hour drive from my place to hers to wish her Happy Mother’s Day through the window. If she’s up for it and weather permits, I’ll invite her to morning tea and breakfast on the back patio. I’m sure she would be happy with a card and a phone call—she’s happy to be thought of—but I’ll make the extra effort to be as close to her as I’m able this year.” —Kevin D.

“I sent my mom an early Mother’s Day gift—a rotating compost bin—so she can enjoy her gift now while cooped up at home! Eating from a cultivated garden, sustainably using her food waste, and spending time in her backyard are all things I hope can brighten this weird time.” —Anna D.

“My mom and I live 10 hours away from each other, so we’ve spent many Mother’s Day holidays apart. I wish I could see her more often during the year, but I try to be there for her by surprising her with something that’ll warm her heart: framing an old family photo or conspiring with my dad to pick up flowers or some sort of fancy dessert from a local restaurant. One thing I like to do is write my late brother’s name at the end of my cards, because I know she misses him and likes to see him included still. On a lighter note, she also receives some very well-written cards from her granddog.” —Kat S.

“This is our first Mother’s Day as new moms. And even though it’s going to be an odd one, I still want it to be special. Thinking it will be a lot of homemade things: homemade meals, homemade cards, and a homemade gift.” —Lindsay B.

More ideas for mom

  • Make a flower arrangement and drop it off at mom’s front door (or bedroom door or nightstand). You can make an easy basket to hang on the doorknob or a simple arrangement to put on the porch. (These work whether you have access to a lush outdoor garden or an assortment of pretty weeds.)
  • Gather friends and family and write a tribute to a special mama or mother figure. You can contribute by emails and messages or create a Google Document and let everyone add stories, memories, and words of appreciation. Or use Google Slides: Each person or family can add a favorite photo and the story behind it, and you can share the slide show in an online gathering.
  • Spend time creating something together, whether it’s in person or online. Here are 20 creative projects perfect for “Mommy and Me” time for kids of all ages.
  • And don’t forget the card.

How to celebrate dad from a distance

Ideas Media Cards Elevating Special Occasions FD Fathers Day

Can you tweak one of the birthday or Mother’s Day ideas above for Dad? Sure. Or you could put your own spin on one of these ideas:

My dad is a storyteller with lots of idiosyncrasies. This makes it easy to “roast” him and he loves it. It would be fun for us to do a family group FaceTime just to recount memories and laugh. I can see us playing “Guess what Dad story this is—hint, you’ve heard it a 100 times” or just reenacting some of our favorite memories of him. —Katie W.

We will actually be with Andy this year! But during deployments, we sent cards, photos, small gifts—always mailed several weeks ahead of time. —Shannon D.

Virtual chocolate tasting! —Lisa V.
(Find your own: Search online for “virtual tasting” and your father’s favorite thing to eat or drink.)

I will probably do yard work and chores and send my dad photos. That’s the kind of stuff we always did together as a family and asking his advice on that sort of thing in my own home makes him happy. —Kaitlin J.

Yard games on Zoom! —Elizabeth A.-R.

My husband will definitely get to sleep in and we’ll order takeout from a fun local restaurant so he won’t have to cook. We’ll invite my parents over for lunch on the patio and sit a responsible distance apart. —Lori L.

And from her sister, who lives across the country:
I’ll send my dad a bottle of port. And I’ll get my sister to FaceTime me when her family gets together with our parents: I can join them from my patio and give a toast to our father. —Trish B.

One request from a Dad that may be especially appropriate for long-distance celebrations:
No-Shower Sunday! —Jeremy D.

More ideas for dad

  • Do your dad a favor: Clean the car, mow the lawn, shine his shoes or clean the grill. Just make sure you don’t take over a task he enjoys doing.
  • Plan some outdoor activities: a bike ride and picnic, cookout, camping, golfing or fishing.
  • Add your personal touch and make something he’ll love. We’ve got ideas for homemade gifts and a cool terrarium.
  • Of course, there’s the card. We’ve got recommendations for what to write, fun things to put in the card and ways to fancy up the envelope.

How to celebrate high school graduation when school is out

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Students grow up believing their senior year will be one to remember—but not for the reasons 2020 has brought. Many seniors are grieving for the events they’re missing, the friends they can’t spend time with, and the ceremony that signals the start of adulthood. For college students, the celebration of their hard work will be delayed or cancelled.

And that means the ones who love them are getting creative to make sure graduation is a milestone to remember and graduates feel honored and celebrated. Here are some creative substitutions for final-semester events:

“My daughter’s senior year has been filled with a lot of big life changes. As she prepares for the future, I want her to have something meaningful and constant. I plan on giving her a piece of her late grandmother’s jewelry as a reminder that our family will always be there for her.” —Jon S.

“Two of my granddaughters had their talent show planned for next week at their school. Of course, that, along with graduation, birthday parties, play dates, visiting, and sleepovers, etc., has gone the way of the wind. So I had them perform their show via Facetime video chat.” —Susan F.

“Prom was last weekend for my son. He’s a junior in high school. I made him a paper crown, crowned him king, and while he stood out my sunroof waving, I drove around the neighborhood honking. We played dance music while I made dinner and then watched a ’90s prom movie.” —Katie L.


Ideas for an at-home graduation ceremony

Turn dinner into an at-home graduation ceremony. You can keep it to the immediate family or bring relatives and friends in via Skype or Zoom. You can:

  • Decorate with school colors and photos of the graduate.
  • Make or order the graduate’s favorite dinner and dessert.
  • Spotlight the graduate: Ask them to deliver a speech, show highlight videos of sports or performances, or play a slide show of special moments from their life so far.
  • Appoint yourself to give the commencement address, personalized for your student. (If you need a little inspiration, start with these tips on how to give a toast.) Or look online for an address by someone they admire.
  • Finish by letting your student read their graduation cards and open their gifts. (Here are lots of ideas for choosing a meaningful gift, creative ways to give cash, and idea starters for what to write in a card.)

More graduation ideas

  • Ask friends and family to make videos for your graduate. You can give them ideas or themes to get started, like predictions for the future, words of advice, or musical song parodies. Have your grad watch while wearing their cap and gown.
  • Team up with other parents to hire a photographer for front-porch graduation photos. The graduate wears a cap and gown, the family dresses up, and the photographer parks out front and takes a photo of you gathered outside.
  • Work with your student’s friends’ parents to gather snapshots for a scrapbook or photo album.

Closing thoughts

We can’t deny that celebrations with family and friends are fun and exciting. But at heart, they’re about thinking of others, encouraging one another, and reminding those we love how much they mean. With a little extra planning and thought, we can give any celebration meaning and make it memorable—no matter how far apart we are.

Pro tips

  • Practice. If you’re going online to celebrate, make sure everyone involved is comfortable with the technology so you can focus on the celebration. That may mean a practice run with your parents or making a short video tutorial.
  • Plan. Getting a bunch of people together online or for a car parade? Over-communicate your plans. Send an email (or emails) to outline what’s happening when. Text a reminder the day of. Have a backup plan in case of technical glitches or bad weather.
  • Hit “record.” Capture the moments: Make videos of car parades. Record or make screen captures of your online celebrations. Take photos to share with friends and family. Create a time capsule or a fun container to store or display your greeting cards or get a card keeper for the occasion.