Choosing and Hosting a Holiday Family Reunion
We used to hold family gatherings at our father's two-story house in the desert, but our parents' aging caused a major change in the tradition—and their passing caused another one. Now change is coming again as the next generation of kids become adults. How will that transition take place?
This article addresses the following transition choices and how to handle them:
- Choosing the host
- Celebrating with parents
- Hosting a gathering yourself
- Being a guest at a loved one's house
- Passing the baton to the children
- Gathering with friends, not family
Who Will Host the Reunion?
One of the first and most important decisions to make for the holidays is who will host the family gathering. Who has a big enough space, finances, the energy, and the will? Who cares the most? In a family divided, who is the most diplomatic? Who has hosted before and whose turn is it now? What can you do if you don't have a family?
For the last several years my family, which is large and disbursed and now without parents, has had a loose tradition of trading off holidays between two siblings. There are three of us in the Los Angeles area with offspring, and two in the San Francisco Bay area with offspring. My sister's family hosts either Thanksgiving or Christmas in the LA area, and one of my brothers hosts the other holiday in the Bay area. The tradition changes, depending on circumstances.
Hosting takes work carried out by someone - the host, a separate organizer (hired or not) or guests splitting tasks amongst themselves. Whoever hosts, there is a fairly standard set of procedures that they follow.
Family Party Planning Ideas and Checklist
Whoever ends up being the host will have to plan ahead to carry out or coordinate each of the following tasks:
- Decorate the room, if not the house.
- Host the event, making sure everything goes smoothly.
- Arrange for accommodations for out-of-towners, if they need them.
- Pay for meals, decor, and activities.
- Plan and cook meals, or coordinate others cooking.
- Plan and host activities when guests are not eating.
- Clean up during and after meals and the event.
This is a lot of work, but it can be shared. Once the host has given them a connection the first year, in subsequent years out-of-town guests can book rooms in nearby motels themselves.
My family traded off with paying for the food, cooking it, and cleaning up afterward. Those activities then became a fun part of the party, because they were shared.
Activities during the event can be as simple as watching a game on TV, while eating dessert. We used to drag out our favorite family game, Settlers of Catan, while others played card games.
Even though setting up a family gathering can seem like a lot of work, it's the planning that's most important. And that becomes a fun thing, when it lets the host imagine partying in advance. In a sense, they get to party twice.
Who hosts your holiday parties these days?
Christmas Gatherings With Senior Parents
Old and tired, often discouraged, older adults are hungry for family and belonging during the holidays. They may be used to, but not capable of being in control anymore, yet still have the biggest house. Or they may have given up the family home and/or are living in a nursing home. In the first instance, you can take the celebration to them. In the second, hold the celebration elsewhere, but invite them and let them contribute. Here are key points to consider.
If they can host: Ask if the family can use the parent's home, as long as you organize it. Don't expect them to play a major role if they are easily confused, but do give them some kind of role. Ask if they would like to pay for the party and decorate the house, or provide transportation and/or accommodation for out-of-towners, or some other piece of the pie that is still possible for them to do. The rest of it you can organize with the help of siblings, using the guidelines above.
Parents Grown Older - Now Passed On
If they can't host: Make sure they know in advance that the family will be gathering, where it will be, and that they are invited. This is very important for their peace of mind. Arrange for transportation for them to get there. If they can't drive anymore, send someone who has a special affinity with them.
If you are bringing them from a nursing home, make sure the nursing home sends whatever you need to take care of them during the time they are there. Designate someone to keep an eye out for them during the party - sometimes people in wheelchairs are inadvertently overlooked and left alone as festivities progress. Know they will probably get tired sooner than they used to, and you will probably have to take them back early.
My mother loved the laughter and singing and talking of a family gathering, although she couldn't talk herself. When she was tired, she'd fall asleep in her wheelchair. We gauged her return based on when we thought her clothes would need changing - usually after the main meal. It worked out really well.
If they can't attend: In cases where the parent is too far gone to be able to leave a nursing home or hospital at Christmastime, take Christmas to them. Arrange for a group of you to carol them in their room as one of your activities. Take Christmas stories, photos, and gifts to them. (Make sure you write their name on any gift in indelible ink.) If you are from out of town, visit again just before you leave. You never know whether you'll be able to see them again.
Hosting Parties Yourself
When you host, plan ahead. How many and whom will you invite? What will you need? Who will do what and stay where? My sister used to try to do everything herself, but it was way too much work. Our family is the kind that doesn't care so much about formal dinners anyway - some of our best moments have been talking, singing, joking, while helping out in the kitchen. Leave space in your plans for group activities and on-your-own time.
Something many hosts don't do is to plan ahead to avert problems:
- What is most important to you about the gathering?
- What you most dread happening?
You'll want to include in your planning that most important thing, and prevention measures for what you don't want. Do you want peace and harmony? Help with meals or sharing costs? Some kind of informal or formal ceremony? How will you handle gift giving?
Let everyone know in various ways, both formal and informal, what you are aiming for:
- If you dread interactions between family members that have clashed before, ask a family peacemaker to keep an eye out, or talk to those members ahead of time and ask them to take special care.
- If you've been stuck with all the work before (and resented it), make it a potluck or tell guests ahead of time that you will welcome assistance in the kitchen.
- If you want sharing with costs, target those who are good financially and ask for help. Ask the non-financial contributors to help with labor.
There are lots of ways to prevent disappointments, if you plan ahead.
Being a Party Guest at a Family Reunion
The host will be doing most of the planning, but as a guest you'll want to contribute too. Assess what you know of their situation. Look at your own. How can you best help out? Offer ahead to bring a contribution for meals. Expect to leave some money, however much you can afford, even hiding it if you need to. (Slip it into the dog food bin or the silverware drawer for them to find later, if you think they'll refuse it).
If you know your host's house will be crowded, arrange for accommodation in a nearby motel. If you like to drink, but they don't much, bring your own alcohol. Same thing with coffee, eggnog, or ice cream (we're a huge ice cream-eating family). Bring games. The biggest help you can give to most hosts is cleaning up afterward.
Christmas gifts can be awkward. Find out what they usually do and try to follow suit. Look carefully to see what they like. A household gift is always good. I accidentally hit on the perfect gift one Christmas, when I made a vintage-looking lap blanket with a golfer on it (my brother-in-law golfs). They used that blanket for years, until well after it had turned into rags.
If there is an argument, which there nearly always is, cut it short if it's you and go someplace to calm down. If it's someone else, go quiet. Don't get involved, unless someone is clearly being bullied or they are slandering you, at which point you can just say, "That's not true" and leave it. Make a joke to distract them and/or others.
Later on, make it a point to socialize with each of the parties to warm them up again. Still later, discipline your thoughts so that a five minute argument stays minor, compared to the two days of fun you had.
Settlers of Catan--Great Game to Play
We got this game originally in German. My father and a brother worked hard to translate it into English the first Christmas, so we could introduce it to our family at the reunion. It immediately caught on. By the following year, an English version had come out and three of my brothers had bought games. Everyone taught their kids and they taught their friends. Now some twenty years later, many of us play it online.
Passing the Baton - Kids Hosting the Family Gathering
At some point it will be time to let the next generation take over. Your children, having grown up with you in most cases, already have an idea of how to organize a gathering, but they also know the hidden frustrations. This can be scary for them, so ease them into hosting by helping them set it up the first time.
- Encourage the young adult/s to plan ahead. Remind them that there will be plenty of help available.
- Let them go through your decorations and take a bunch home to borrow or keep. Let them plan meals, while you pay for food.
- Take extra dishes and silverware over.
- Arrange for accommodations nearby for guests.
- Host a family breakfast or brunch in a nearby restaurant the next day.
- Nudge other family members if they don't seem to be helping out enough, but be careful that your children want the help first.
This first event can be really exciting for everyone - new hosts and guests - and most of the guests will go out of their way to give extra help.
Holiday Fun with Friends, not Family
Thanksgiving and Christmas with friends can be fun for people who don't have family, who are not close to their family, or who just want to try a different kind of Christmas for once. As with hosting or celebrating with siblings, it's important to plan ahead first, and communicate with your friends about their plans.
Instead of partying at someone's house, you could take over part or all of a local restaurant - with their permission, of course. Bring a tabletop decoration and gag gifts or games. Make sure you tip well, especially if the group is there a long time. Make arrangements with your friends in advance as to how you'll be paying for the meal.
Alternatively, you could form a little committee of friends to organize a celebration at your church or a local social center, or go caroling at each other's houses or at local institutions (like hospitals, nursing homes, or a homeless shelter.) For these institutions you could also collect and distribute cuddle toys, cook special food, or spend a day volunteering your services as a group.
Celebrate the Holidays With Joy
In all the situations above, it's important to remember that the holidays are a time for warmth--gathering together, gifting each other, and/or helping a cause. It's a season that brings hope and the light of generosity and love to the world.
Everyone can contribute to the holidays in some good way--with family and friends, even with community celebrations, so choose well and with love. Make your season special this year by letting yourself be excited and spreading the joy you feel.