Being miles away from friends and family at Christmas no longer means you can’t share the holidays with them. ALIX NORMAN on why she’ll be glued to the computer this festive season
The difficulty, you see, is that my only sister lives in Alaska. Yes, almost exactly half way round the world. If I wanted to visit, it would probably be quicker to bore a hole through the centre of the Earth than fly round it. And cheaper too. So, at a time of year that’s really all about being with family, it can get quite lonely for both of us. But this isn’t going to be a sad Christmas story. No, it’s a tribute to communication technology, and how – despite the physics of time and space –there’s a myriad of ways to stay in touch.
With the plethora of platforms, apps and sites that are now, literally, at our fingertips, once futuristic technologies are bringing us together from the four corners of the globe: thanks to communication technology, we’re living in a shrinking world. “And it’s getting smaller all the time,” says David Townend, Chief Operating Officer at communications technology company Evanidus. “As internet speeds improve in years to come, worlds of possibilities will open up,” he says. “In the near future, open channels of communication will lead to whole families living in a much more visually connected way.” And with most of us using social media sites throughout our working day, it seems this exciting future is fast approaching…
Take Facebook, for instance: fantastic for up to the minute bulletins on what’s happening with friends and family all over the world. Then there’s WhatsApp, which is great if you want to send a quick – and free – text or voice clip. There’s Viber, Instagram, Twitter (the different methods of communication are growing so fast, it sometimes seems there’s simply no way to keep up with them all)… And then, of course, there’s Skype – a form of communication now so ubiquitous that it has its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. So much of our actual conversation happens through gesture, expression and movement that a mere phone call always seems to somehow exacerbate the distances involved, so the video calling option on Skype is a lifeline for many, a way to truly share – if not in all five senses, then at least the two most important – in family life…
One such family is the Gregorious, who plan to Skype Nouna in Chicago on Christmas Day. “My three sons regularly use the internet to chat face-to-face with friends and family around the world; it’s far easier for a six-year-old than writing an actual letter!” says Anna Gregoriou. “Skype has been such a blessing in terms of staying in contact. Even my cyber-phobic father will use it to communicate with the family over the holiday season.”
And with this visual communication technology constantly improving, says COO David, it’s allowing us to be closer to loved ones than ever before: “Phone calls can be great, but Skype really is ten times better: it allows you to actually see the smile on someone’s face when they open your present, even though you may be thousands of miles apart. The only issue comes with mobile technology, which often doesn’t have the capacity to cope with Skype. In which case you can always use Snap Chat for a quick message, or leave a personal video in Drop Box for the family to open on Christmas morning.“
Thirty-something Max Stylianidou is an avid fan of these latest technologies, and plans to be online for much of the holiday period: “Many of my friends and family are based in the UK, so the social media revolution has certainly made it easier – and cheaper – to remain in contact,” he says. “Supposedly, it’s the season to be jolly, and for me that’s all about my people. For me, hanging out virtually on Skype or Facebook is the next best thing to actually being in the UK at Christmas.”
And the great thing is that it works the opposite way too: “I returned to Edinburgh for good in October,” says Ruth Brookes, who, at 73 years of age, lived for most of her life in Cyprus. “Even though I moved back to be closer to my family, it’s been very hard to leave my expat world. Especially at this time of year,” she adds. “I’ve always done the same things each December: helped with the Christmas productions, and the bazaar, been to the same church service and had Christmas lunch with the same group of friends. It’s certainly been a wrench to leave all that behind.”
Luckily, Ruth has embraced the latest forms of communication technology and manages to stay in touch in a way she could never have imagined forty years ago: “As soon as I got back to Scotland, my kids bought me a smartphone – they knew how much I’d be missing my friends abroad. I was quite worried about using it at first, but my grandchildren were very understanding and patient in explaining things to me, and it’s actually far easier than I’d imagined! Now I’m pretty happy using Viber and Skype to stay in touch; it’s like having the best of both worlds, family here and friends at the touch of a button.”
And that’s why, this year, no matter where I am, with the click of a mouse I can be halfway round the world enjoying Christmas with my sister. I may be plugged into my computer in a way not even Jules Verne himself could have envisaged, and I may not be physically able to pull the crackers or taste the gravy, but I’ll be able to see and to hear and – through the wonders of communication technology – to share in a family celebration. And for that, I’m very grateful. Anyway, there’s probably a great deal to be said for seeing an Alaskan winter without actually being there.