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One of my relatives loves to assert at every family get together that “You can’t choose your relatives.” She smirks and we laugh because we are so lucky to have such a fun bunch, despite the quirks, dysfunctions, and fiery Irish personalities. But her statement rings true for everyone: you really can’t choose your relatives. Whether you like it or not, you’re a lifetime member of the club. You are bound by shared DNA, shared memories, shared secrets, and shared histories. Essentially, you’re stuck together. And that’s not such a bad thing, is it?
Maybe the idea of bringing all of your relatives together in one location fills you with excitement, dread, or both. Or maybe you try to politely avoid encounters with Cousin Ernie who decided to rename himself “The Blue Shaman” and start his own religion. Maybe your “nice and normal” family isn’t really all that nice or normal. Perhaps political conversations with Aunt Myrtle give you a stress rash. Or maybe your squirrel-eating cousins make you cringe. Well guess what. Despite your differences, it’s important for families to get together. A family reunion is a nice, temporary, and special way to do that.
FAMILY REUNION PLANNING 101
So where do you start? One of my several careers before becoming a writer involved owning an event planning business. I planned everything from corporate retreats for fifty to fundraising dinners for eight hundred. While it wasn’t always easy, I truly enjoyed my job. During those years I learned that every memorable occasion – wedding, fundraiser, or family reunion – begins with a well thought out plan.
Read on for some tips on how to make your next reunion one your family will never forget (in a good way!).
THE EARLIER THE BETTER
Ideally, you should begin planning your reunion at least six months to a year in advance. The first task you need to tackle is choosing a date.
Send out an initial email or letter telling potential attendees of your hopes for organizing a reunion. List several possible dates and ask family members to rank their preferences and to indicate dates when they would not be available. If you don’t want to be stuck tallying up 75 rankings, send out an online poll for a Doodle! It’s a free website that let’s people vote on dates and it does the work for you. And the math for you. (You’re welcome.)
Remember, if your guest list includes more than about 25 people, the chances of you finding a date that suits everyone will be slim. Just choose a date that the largest percentage of possible guests and then stick with it.
MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK
If you want to make your reunion a fun and memorable day for everyone, including yourself, don’t try to go it alone!
As soon as possible after choosing the date, send out another note asking for volunteers to help organize and execute the big event.
When starting family reunion planning, create a list of different areas of responsibility – food, invitations, decorations, nametags and souvenirs, venue or hotel arrangements, games and activities, etc. – and ask people to indicate their volunteering preferences. Things will go so much better if people are working in their strengths and areas of interests. However, if your vegan cousin Darla is planning a BBQ, you might want to rethink that. If Uncle Dwight isn’t great with details, maybe ask someone else to handle the hotel booking.
For families spread far and wide, consider creating a private Facebook group so you can keep everyone in the loop. This is a great way to communicate and spread excitement and chatter in the weeks and months ahead!
BUDGETS AND BANQUETS, AND Smörgåsbords
A successful family reunion should be accessible to as many members of the family as possible. That means making sure the event is affordable to relatives who may be at different ages and stages of life – young families just starting out, seniors on fixed incomes, and everyone in between.
If budgets are concern, make the main reunion event something that is affordable for everyone – perhaps a backyard barbeque or picnic in the park. You can also offer options for add-on activities, extra days, or side trips – a sort of smorgasbord of choices –for those who can afford to spend a bit more time and money on the reunion.
Asking guests to bring potluck dish to share will keep down costs and give people a chance to share favorite family recipes. Many people consider sharing a group meal to be the highlight of a family reunion.
Commemoratives AND PARTY FAVORS
Matching T Shirts: You’ve seen the hilarious matching family reunion t-shirts on Pinterest. You know, the ones where everyone is wearing the same shirt. They might say, ” I’m mother’s favorite,” or “Blame it all on my roots,” or “I don’t know these people,” or “Someone wanted matching tee shirts.” And why stop there? Order those personalized napkins and cups. It makes the occasion more special!
Family Cookbook: With a little pre-planning, you can even send everyone home with a reunion cookbook. Ask everyone to copy their recipe onto 8.5 x 11 inch pieces of paper, a copy for every family attending. If they’d like to write out a story to go along with the recipe, so much the better! The cookbook organizer should bring a three-hole punch and a three ring binder for every guest, then put a copy of each recipe in the binders.
Take Family Photos: If your family is anything like mine, it means that we aren’t all together very often. So why not capture the moment on film? Hire a local photographer or designate someone to take group photos. Everyone will cherish their copy.
Slide Show: Pop some popcorn and gather around a slide projector to reminisce about family memories of the past.This is a great way to remember those who aren’t around anymore, and its always fascinating for the younger relatives to see what we wore in the 70s, or what our hair looked like in the 80s, or how drop-dead gorgeous grandma was at age 20.
Interview the Elders: Have some of the grandkids interview the elders of your tribe. They’ll share their best stories, a few secrets, and impart all kinds of wisdom. The results will be cherished for years.
GAMES, ACTIVITIES, AND ICEBREAKERS
When it comes to family reunions, having plenty of activities that will appeal to guests of all ages and athletic abilities (or lack thereof!) is an important part of the fun. With a bit of creativity, you can come up with activities that allow everyone – young, old, or differently abled – to participate.
For example, if a family softball game is on the agenda, bring along some pom-poms and name great grandma the head cheerleader. Divide into teams for a trivia game with questions centered on your family history. Hold a sunflower seed spitting contest, a water balloon fight, or a sing-along, set up a craft table. Having a wide variety of games will ensure that everyone participates and has a great day.
Also, just because they’re related, doesn’t mean your guests will know each other. Having an icebreaker or two early in the day will help guests discover connections and encourage conversation.
Family Trivia is another fun way to share memories! Focus on trivia that touches on more positive subjects, not the time Uncle Lonnie went to jail for cattle tipping. Or maybe both, for pure entertainment value.
WHAT NOT TO DO AT YOUR FAMILY REUNION
- Don’t overschedule and don’t insist that everybody participate in every activity. For most people, the best part of a family reunion is just the chance to sit down and talk with relatives.
- Don’t forget to unplug. If at all possible, ask family members turn off their mobile devices that day or, better yet, leave them at home entirely.
- Don’t bring up topics that are fraught with tension: i.e., Aunt Linda’s fifth marriage, the recent antics of the black sheep of the family, or political discussions. Every family has that one thing we are forbidden to bring up around mom. Don’t do it! If one of these subjects does come to a boil, change the subject or bring out well-timed brownies or fake an injury.
- Don’t overdo it with the alcohol. If you choose to serve alcohol at your reunion, think carefully about how plentiful and accessible you’d like it to be. On a hot summer day spent outdoors, it can be easy to over imbibe. Nothing will ruin a reunion more quickly than a drunken brawl between Cousin Louie and Uncle Jasper, so make sure you have lots of refreshing non-alcoholic beverages available and think twice before you order that keg.
- Don’t forget a well-stocked first aid kit in your reunion supplies. Chances are there won’t be a full-blown cousin pile-up with injuries but cuts, bruises, and bug bites do happen so it’s good to be prepared.
Summer is the perfect time for a family reunion! With a little cooperation, creativity, and pre-planning, your next family reunion can be a memory-making occasion that people will talk about for years to come.