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Covid's remote parties allowed us to celebrate with all of our dearest, not just our nearest

It was a revelation. We could gather friends from earlier times and time zones in one virtual room.
Image: Illustration of hand holding a cupcake with birthday candle
The curious thing about this new way of doing things is that it’s long been available. We just didn’t see the doorway until the windows were closed.Anjali Nair / NBC News

Not since my wedding did I feel licensed to invite so many people to fête me. And not since elementary school did so many of them have nowhere else to go. It was the great convergence of a captive audience, a quasi-milestone and the deep and widespread need for fun that launched my Zoom celebration one night in December, the biggest and best birthday party I’ve ever had.

At my age, which is to say, middle age, we tend to mark birthdays quietly — a free latte from an astute retailer, a flurry of Facebook messages, a nice dinner out (when we went out for dinner). Maybe we buy a bag or blouse we’ve been eyeing.

It’s a far cry from the gravity of childhood birthdays. If you recall, they felt historic. And once they passed, you waited an interminable 364 days for the spotlight to roll back around. But somewhere along the way, birthdays became only slightly more special than the other days, all of which fly by faster than they used to. So unless you’re approaching an age with a zero, a grown-up birthday bash seems self-indulgent. For one thing, your mother is ostensibly no longer throwing it for you.

However, the pandemic provided the great birthday loophole. I turned, ahem, this winter after months of homebound living; we’d long supplanted jeans with leggings and then leggings with sweats. We were barely wearing bras anymore. This wasn’t a party for me. It was a party for all of us.

So we went big. We live outside Washington, D.C., but invited friends from all over the country — from Seattle to Atlanta to Boston ­­— some 50 people, nearly all of whom attended. Sure, there wasn’t much competition on a pandemic Saturday night, but this kind of party removes so many of the other things that get in the way of getting together ­­— no need to nail down a babysitter or travel anywhere. True, seeing a loved one on the screen hardly rivals a real-life embrace, as any newly vaccinated grandparent finally able to kiss a grandchild can tell you.

But it was a revelation. We could gather friends from earlier times and time zones in one virtual room. And for middle-agers, often pressed between the relentless demands of careers and kids, it works particularly well. A single dad in Manhattan, New York City, for example, excused himself to tuck in his son and then seamlessly rejoined the party.

To connect the far-flung participants, we hired a company to host a trivia game ­­— the emcee was based in Bahrain, and his location was the first trivia question. In making teams, I matched friends as if arranging the table seating for our wedding. The writer friends in three different cities went on one team, the political types (well, they were all local) in another. I reunited friends, since dispersed to New Orleans and Virginia, who made me laugh endlessly when we all lived in New York in our 20s.

Meanwhile, I dressed up for the first time in nine months. I gingerly approached the nonloungewear section of my closet and selected a bright blouse that was decidedly flouncy. I addressed my hair situation. It had become so long that I routinely clobbered it in a ponytail. I was beginning to relate to those women in English period pieces who pin up their long hair in braids — I figured they didn’t get haircuts, either. I smoothed mine with a flat iron, swept on blush and even lipstick (we’d be mask-free!) and my best jewelry. Bedecked, I went downstairs to the home office, giddy to sit beside my husband before so many of my favorite people.

In a way, it was more intimate than an in-person party. Instead of catching a few minutes of mingling with your guests, the Zoom party removes distractions (if you can get over seeing yourself), leaving each of us face to face in our “Brady Bunch” boxes. The team breakout rooms during the trivia game replicated the feel of a side conversation at a big party. Once the game ended, guests stuck around, naturally slipping into an extended afterparty.

My birthday party was particularly well-suited to Zoom. But we’ve seen so many incarnations of virtual events that have sewn joy in ways we couldn’t have anticipated.

In some cases, it’s allowed us to develop new traditions. In the past year, we’ve held a Zoom candlelighting with extended family every Friday night to mark the Jewish Sabbath. A custom we previously practiced on our own, the weekly calls have born a new tradition that’s deepened bonds among us as relatives share the highs and lows of their week and witness our growing children, one of whom performs songs he’s learned at school. (Again, captive audience.)

It’s also allowed old traditions to be re-imagined. No one dreams of a Zoom wedding or retirement party, of course. But as these occasions have gone virtual over the past year, we have discovered the miracle of time travel. Guests from thousands of miles away can witness what they would have missed and add life to an occasion.

The curious thing about this new way of doing things is that it’s long been available. We just didn’t see the doorway until the windows were closed. Now, once life returns to a semblance of what it was, will we remember to open it? Or zoom right on by?

Other essays from our project on what we should keep post-pandemic: