The holidays are often said to be a time we should all unplug and pay attention to our family and friends. I don’t disagree. Forget Facebook, ditch Twitter, leave League of Legends behind.
Yet there are ways to use your computer for good over the holidays. This means turning on your PC to increase your Yule-time cheer. Here’s how to use your computer for good over the holidays.
Stream Christmas music
Listening to the radio is so 1994. A computer can stream the same music or, better still, just your favorite holiday tunes. Most streaming services (like Spotify and iTunes Radio) can send the holidays into your ears, and you can use YouTube to search for themed playlists.
Warm up beside virtual logs
Remember those Christmas Yule Log DVDs? What a racket! Why pay two bucks for a DVD when you can just stream the same on YouTube? In fact, the Internet does one better; not only can you watch logs burn, you can choose from several different takes on the same thing. There’s a perfect virtual log for every occasion!
Look up card games
A rousing card game is a great way to pass the time with your family, but what if everyone is bored of Hearts, Rummy, Go Fish, and the other American classics? You’ll find plenty of great alternatives at Pagat, a site that collects games from around the world. Check out their Editors’ Choice section for a selection of top-notch card games you probably haven’t heard about yet.
Watch Holiday classics
Here’s an easy way to make your computer prove its worth. With Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and tens of others streaming services at your fingertips you’re guaranteed to find some holiday classics. Need to hook your PC up to a TV? Just find an HDMI cord and plug it in. Even a laptop that’s several years old can power a 1080p television and stream HD video without issue.
Track Santa via NORAD (or Google)
NORAD’s official Santa tracker (app version also available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone) has become a staple of the Internet every holiday season. The tracker kicks off on Christmas Eve and is the perfect way to keep children entertained as they wait patiently (if you’re lucky) for presents. In recent years, the site has been upgraded to include games, movies, music, and other holiday distractions.
Google also has a Santa tracker that, predictably, is powered by Google Maps (an app is also available for Android). It doesn’t include games but it does include other extras, like a tool that auto-generates a call from Santa to the North American phone number of your choice.
Build computer-controlled Christmas lights
If you’re looking for a project to keep you occupied over the holidays (and perhaps give you an excuse to grab some alone time) this is just what you need. There are several ways you can accomplish this, but most involve the use of a small hobbyist board like the Raspberry Pi or Arduino. Or, if you’re really daring, you can hack into a strand of remote-control lights to change their colors and timings.
Turn an old computer into ornaments
Here’s another project that can keep you occupied and will surely amuse the geeks in your household. It turns out that old computer parts look kind of cool when they’re taken out and hung on a tree; they’re shiny and often green or red. If you’re feeling lazy you can simply remove adapters, wireless cards and other easily obtainable parts, punch a hole through them (a strong hole-punch can do this, as will a drill) and toss on some string.
If you’re feeling more ambitious it’s entirely possible to cut Christmas-themed shapes out of a motherboard or other large, obsolete component with a power tool. That’s not one for the kids, though, so be careful, and make sure to have some sort of eye protection so an errant capacitor doesn’t blind you. That’d make for quite a story, wouldn’t it?
Donate to a favorite charity
Many families make providing some form a charity to those in need a holiday tradition. Finding time to follow through can be a problem, though, particularly if your family must travel. Your computer provides an easy way to donate even when strapped for time through websites like JustGive.org. Discussing the organization you’d like to donate to, and why, can bring the entire family together.
Buy a last minute (virtual) gift
Oh no! It’s Christmas Eve and you’ve just realized that there’s no present for Aunt Bertha. There’s no time to go shopping, and no time to ship a gift, but you can still pick up a last-minute item online. Electronic gift cards are as good as the real thing (and brick-and-mortar stores often let you print them out).
You can also gift ebooks, movies, television shows, and video games as late as Christmas morning. Bertha might need a little help pushing her HD digital copy of Gone with the Wind to Chromecast, but it’s better than nothing!
Play You Don’t Know Jack
If you’re looking for a fun way to get the family together for trivia, with an irreverent twist, check out You Don’t Know Jack, a series that’s been running for two decades.
Available on your PC (or iPad, or Android tablet, I must admit) this decades-old series can is a part of Steam’s Holiday sale, which means individual titles can be purchased for $2 or the entire collection can be snagged for $8.
The “Classic Pack” is probably your best bet, as it features older trivia from before the writers had to start reaching. Up to two people can play simultaneously, so plan to form teams or switch out winners.