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Gathering family: Celebrating common heritage makes family reunions fun, meaningful and memorable; advance planning required

The idea of planning a family reunion may seem overwhelming at first, but with a few key pointers you can jump-start your way to a fun, meaningful experience that your relatives will remember for years.

And, probably most important, it's not too early to start planning—especially if your target is this summer.

If you have a big family or the reunion is a milestone, like the 25th annual, you may want to assemble a small committee to help divide the work.

Gathering with relatives is a great opportunity to strengthen family ties, celebrate your common heritage, share family stories, reminisce about the past and look to the future.

Best of all, you can enjoy time with family and deepen bonds with kin who occupy the same genetic map.

If you are planning or helping to plan the event, keep a couple of questions in mind: How do we make it fun for one and all—toddlers, tweens, parents, grandparents and everyone in between? And how do we make the most of our family time together?

When? Where?

These are the first questions you'll want to nail down. Maybe you want to position the event on or near Independence Day or Labor Day when families may be planning travel anyway.

When you've settled on a location, identify accommodations, group-friendly restaurants and recreational activities to stir into the mix.

Select a motel or hotel that can provide an adequate number of sleeping and meeting rooms and, if possible, amenities the whole family can enjoy.

Secure a block of rooms for the out-of-towners.

Invitations

Gather all the family members' names and addresses you can. Ask others for new or updated contact information on family members.

Once details regarding location and accommodations are confirmed, spread the word and tickle everyone's interest with a short-but-sweet, save-the-date message via email or snail mail. Include basic information on dates, times, location and a warmly worded invitation.

Follow up later with a more detailed invitation that includes a welcome letter which sets the tone for a joyful family reunion and includes information on how to make hotel reservations.

Learn family history

A family reunion is an ideal time to educate family members—young and old—about their heritage. Embrace this opportunity to deepen everyone's understanding of their ancestors.

Consider crafting a family tree wall-hanging or a horizontal chart that follows the family line as far back as you can or care to. Leave space for people to jot in names and dates concerning births, deaths, changes in marital status, and any other appropriate data.

It's the stories and lore about those who populate the family tree that make each family unique and, oftentimes, delightfully colorful. Some families set aside a specific time, near the close of the reunion, to gather and verbally share favorite anecdotes and funny or heart-tugging memories.

Special attractions

To reinforce that sense of family, consider assembling a slideshow — playing on a continuous loop in the primary meeting room — that displays beloved family photos from past reunions or other contributed photos.

Some families also inspire nostalgia with a silent auction of family memorabilia—this is an occasion when "well-used" is actually a selling point. What makes these items most intriguing is the "story" or memory behind them. For example, "Aunt Emma used these cookie sheets for decades to make those chocolate chip cookies she was so famous for," and affix said recipe.

Auction proceeds could be applied to miscellaneous costs of this or the next reunion, or donated to a cause or organization the family holds dear.

Who's who

At reunions where multiple generations of family members are in attendance, the question of "whose children or grandchildren are those?" is sure to come up.

Some families choose to narrow the field a bit by assigning different colors to each branch of the family. A specific colored T-shirt, emblazoned with a unifying theme, such as "Johnson Family Reunion," offers an immediate visual clue to let everyone keep track of who "belongs" to whom.

If that approach seems too complicated, costly or time-consuming, color-coded name badges could achieve the same end.

Play together

If your reunion location is an outdoor setting, pack your agenda with plenty of time for recreational activities—such as hiking, biking, swimming and horseback-riding—for the group. Your location may also offer or be close to a mini-golf course or water park, offering more opportunity for family fun.

But don't forget to have a backup with rainy-day activities to keep kids busy and engaged when swimming in the lake is out of the question.

Other events that may appeal to people of all ages include a karaoke night, country-line dancing, a best-dessert contest, sing-alongs, or a bag-toss game competition.

Trivia competitions, focused on family facts or history, test everyone's memories and can be very entertaining as well as educational. Enhance the fun factor with blatantly silly prizes.

Safety first

If you're planning a reunion near the water, make sure to keep safety tips in mind so everyone stays healthy.

Adult supervision is essential, especially for younger members in your group, at a lake or pool. Consider assigning "watch" duty or specific shifts to reliable adults. When everyone thinks someone else is watching, it's possible that no one is.

Don't be lulled into thinking that inflatable toys function as life-preservers—these toys can deflate, leak and slip out from under kids in deep water.

Around the pool, where there may be standing water, enforce a no-running policy to prevent falls.

Support services

Check out nearby businesses whose services may come in handy—such as child care, tent rentals, laundromats, spas or salons—to reunion participants.

A list of these businesses, with contact and address information, could be copied for pickup at the registration table or other information hub at the reunion.

Document the event

When planning the agenda, be sure to set a time for a group photo as well as individual family photos.

Some families give the task to a member or hire someone outside the family to roam around and take photos or video of the event. The resulting disk, to be shared with all who want it, preserves the memories of the special and very personal occasion.

Capturing and saving these moments will keep reunion memories alive. The disk is likely to become a keepsake family members will enjoy later and cherish.

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