- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

Over the river and through cyberspace to grandmother’s house we go. Welcome to virtual Thanksgiving, where everything you need — even watching your Aunt Nell eat string-bean casserole and fighting over the wishbone — can be had online.

With a Web cam and microphone, not to mention e-mails and “black Friday” virtual holiday sales, Thanks-giving conceivably could be celebrated in the privacy of your bedroom, wearing your Pilgrim-decorated pajamas and avoiding those chillingly unpleasant nephews and Granny getting into the gin bottle.

With 21.7 million air passengers standing in security lines and fighting for overhead-bin storage and millions clogging the highways, has virtual Thanksgiving come of age?

“And with Internet football, you don’t even have to leave your computer,” says Charles Ehrlich, a computer specialist with MacHeaven in Chantilly.

While the concept is still cutting-edge, the technology for families to celebrate holidays together via the Internet is already in place. “For people who can’t make it home, at least they can see and speak to each other,” Mr. Ehrlich says.

And perhaps avoid emotional conflicts and confrontations that routinely mar some high-pressured family get-togethers and send some reaching for the Prozac.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people are doing it,” says Matt Nelson, communications manager for Geeks on Call in Norfolk. “Certainly with the increase in plane fares and gas prices.”

Airline ticket prices are up 15 percent this season, and don’t even mention fuel prices.

“We have seen a ton of people doing this,” says Karin Muskopf, Microsoft Network (MSN) public relations manager in Redmond, Wash. “They’re buying Web cams for themselves and their families. It’s a great alternative for people who can’t make it home.”

One MSN service that seems to have caught on is MSN Spaces, a Web site devoted to blogging that has attracted 25 million users.

“They put up holiday photos and images, tell jokes about what Aunt Fanny did at the Thanksgiving table two years ago. I’ve seen a lot of posts about the holidays, and I think it’s an outlet for people’s emotions and feelings,” Miss Muskopf says.

Browse the Internet, and you’ll also find offers for sending electronic greetings, delivering Thanksgiving floral arrangements and FedExing precooked turkeys overnight, plus recipes, holiday game ideas and digital photo swapping. Chat rooms for the lonely will offer solace and interest singles looking for a Thanksgiving dinner date. It has never been so easy to reach out and touch someone.

Charities are taking donations online to provide Thanksgiving meals for the homeless, a job that used to require dropping off greasy aluminum pans. Don’t worry about exercising the next day, either. Just log on to fitness guru Denise Austin’s Web site for ways to shed those holiday pounds.

But the biggest boon has been online shopping. BlackFridayads.com, a new Web site, has ingeniously lined up such companies as J.C. Penney, Staples and Best Buy to pre-advertise their day-after-Thanksgiving sales and allow customers to log on and purchase special “Doorbusters” — items traditionally reserved for the 6-to-11 a.m. rush of frenzied shoppers — online.

What used to be the busiest shopping day of the year at the mall is now a mere click of a button away and certainly saves camping out on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag for those bargains.

At Toys R Us, black Friday sales will include this year’s hottest new toys, including Hasbro’s I-Dog ($29.99), which dances to internally supplied music; Fisher-Price’s Dora’s Talking Kitchen ($79.99); and the Black Belt Karate Home Studio ($24.99), which might teach the youngsters how to kick the monitor when the computer goes down.

As for preparing the Thanksgiving feast, the Internet is a fount of knowledge. Check out FineLiving.com for a virtual step-by-step program. HGTV.com offers Thanksgiving Style at Home, which features videos, electronic cards, homemade projects, table-setting tips and more.

FoodNetwork.com shows you how to prepare the entire menu, with an interactive calendar to help plan the event. Tips on entertaining, including wine choices, also are included.

As far as the savory smell of roasted turkey, however, even MSN hasn’t come up with an alternative.

“We don’t have ‘smellavision’ yet,” says MSN’s Miss Muskopf. “I guess you could put something in the microwave to get some good smells.”

Whether or not sharing the Thanksgiving feast via a computer monitor (and the software that goes with it) catches on , it certainly provides an alternative to what many mental health care professionals consider a highly stressful holiday.

But, after all, isn’t that what families are for?

“There’s really no replacement for family,” says Mr. Nelson of Geeks on Call. “I think most people still want to see people over the holidays. Besides,” he adds with a laugh, unlike computer chips, “no family is perfect.”

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