Extended Family Holiday Gatherings Don't Have To Be Painful
Aunt Edna is upset because Cousin Billy is bringing his new girlfriend, and she doesn't think she should have to buy her a gift. Sue and Harry's family can only come on the Saturday before the holiday, and Aunt Judy insists that everything be home cooked. Considering the obstacles and opinions, why will Americans mob the airports and highways this holiday season, as they do every year, to attend gatherings with their extended families?
"People need to feel that connectedness," surmises Charlotte Shoup Olsen, an associate professor of family studies and extension specialist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. "When everyone is together you get that sense of being part of a bigger community -- not in the sense that you live close by, but just in a sense of belonging. Holidays, especially, offer a good opportunity to build that family history together."
According to a recent poll conducted by Harris Interactive and sponsored by Modern Woodmen of America, Rock Island, Ill., 90 percent of Americans attend a holiday event such as Thanksgiving or Christmas with extended family.
"Nearly all Americans in our survey (99 percent) feel it's good for children to know their relatives and family history," comments Sharon Snawerdt of Modern Woodmen. Modern Woodmen, a fraternal benefit society offering financial services, promotes strong family relationships through its many member programs as well as its Web site, gatherings .
Snawerdt adds, "Ninety percent of survey respondents indicated that spending time with extended family is one of the most important parts of their lives."
The holidays are a time for "peace on earth," but that doesn't stop Uncle Joe from fighting with Aunt Helen.
"Holidays are a time when people come home, and grown, mature adults will fall back into those old childhood roles in the family and past hard feelings resurface," explains Olsen. "Big sis just can't get over feeling that baby brother was spoiled rotten, even if they are both in their 40s."
Olsen says that all family members should be included in the invitation, even the black sheep or the two family members having a feud.
"If someone refuses to come because so and so will be there, there is nothing you can do about it," she says. "That is his or her baggage."
Olsen offers some tips for how to handle family members who may not like to be in the same room with one another.
* Appoint a neutral member of the family to take on the role of mediator. (This person should use humor and tact to encourage guests to avoid touchy subjects. In other words, if Uncle Joe starts discussing Grandpa's will, the mediator should gracefully make it known that this isn't the appropriate time to bring up that topic.)
* Assign seats using place cards.
* Set up smaller table arrangements throughout the house.
* Limit alcoholic beverages. Alcohol makes some people braver and more confrontational.
Giving and Receiving
It wouldn't be the holidays without gift giving, but as families grow larger many struggle with how to handle it. Olsen offers these tips:
* A grab bag. In this system, set a price limit and have each guy bring a guy gift and each gal bring a gal gift.
* A drawing. Each participant planning to attend the event draws a name from a hat (or via phone or email) and brings a gift for only that person.
* A homemade gift exchange. Crafts, food items and artwork are good suggestions. This is for the family willing to invest some time, but not as much money.
* A "time" gift certificate exchange. These can feature anything from snow shoveling to babysitting services.
* A kids-only exchange.
* A collection of donations for the local food pantry or group sponsorship of a needy family.
Finally, Olsen suggests forgoing the gift giving altogether and replacing it with activities even more meaningful. Aside from the standard board games and card games, here are a host of tips for making your family gathering fun.
* Games and Activities
-- "Picture Lotto" - Make your own game using copies of your family pictures.
-- "Frosty" - Use some toilet paper, construction paper and family teams to have some family fun in this interactive game.
-- "Unwrap the Gift" - This game uses a bag of candy or small gift items, a multi-layer-wrapped gift box and some music to create fun for the very young, as well as the adults.
* Scrapbook, photography and video ideas
-- A Family Time Capsule - It can't get much easier than videotaping the festivities to save for posterity. You can incorporate interviews with family members asking them to share their favorite memories or a song.
-- Gathering Scrapbook - More than compiling a multifaceted record of a gathering, creating scrapbooks can be a rewarding. At your next family event have each family create a page. Take pictures that day thinking about each family, so you can get a representative sample. When the film is developed, place the appropriate pictures with that family's page. Compile together and share at your next gathering.
"The important part of gift giving isn't so much what you get, but prolonging the family time together," says Olsen. "Instead of a gift exchange, you can think of activities or games to do together. You can sing carols or look over photo albums. You can view family videos or make a video heirloom. Any holiday tradition is an opportunity beyond eating to spend time together. You have a short amount of time together, but you want to make it a good memory for the whole year."
"That's one gift everyone will appreciate."