This past July, my mom’s side of the family gathered amongst the corn fields of Iowa for a family reunion. Not for a day or a few days but for an entire week. A week to visit, to reminisce, to either win or lose at horseshoes or bags. A week to spend with loved ones around campfires, roasting s’mores and dancing under the stars. A week to bask in the love of family. At this wonderful reunion, we celebrated 50 years of family reunions which started with my grandmother and her 11 siblings. Read on to see how to organize and plan a family reunion, but first, a few highlights from our reunion.
It’s no surprise that I became a Professional Organizer. I just have to look at my mom and my extended family to see that my organization skills are genetic. These people I’m related to are geniuses when it comes to organizing, and I continue to learn from them at every family gathering.
So a few fun facts about this past reunion:
116 people attended the July Reunion (some for a meal, others for the week). One couple marrying in 1912 led to 12 children, which led to 36 grandchildren, which led to 78 great-grandchildren, which led to 99 great-great-grandchildren, which has so far led to 9 great-great-great-grandchildren with one on the way in December. That’s a total of 222.5 people created in roughly 100 years because Ole and Gusta decided to marry. That’s beautiful and powerful.
Youngest attendee: Arya, 4 months
Oldest attendee: Aunt Darlene, 2nd youngest of the 12, born in 1933 (age 88)
Number of RV’s (6), Tents (2), Hammocks (0)
Furthest travelled: Phoenix Arizona – 1,607 Miles
States Travelled From: 9 – Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Washington, Indiana
Highest auction item: $285 – Cornhole board set made from old barn wood from Aunt Darlene’s barn
Steps to Organize and Plan a Family Reunion
So, now you want to know how to mimic the above greatness? First, you need to decide who will be the contact to represent each branch of the family. Siblings? Spouses? Then start asking for input regarding the following: Do you prefer local or want a destination? How many days are you able to attend? When are you able to take time off from work? Do you want to stay somewhere fancy or are you roughing it? Should you potluck, cater, or all cook? What should you do for entertainment? Lastly, who’s going to pay for everything?
Important decision to make because it will determine how many people attend. If your family is spread out, deciding on the location can become stressful. So, maybe you switch it around, have it in one city one year with the understanding it’ll be in a different city the following year. Ask yourself (and your family), do you want to have it:
- Closest to the majority of the family?
- Where someone has the space or ability to host the number of expected people?
- A location where everyone’s always wanted to travel (the Bahamas, Alaska, etc.).
It may be easier to decide where once you know how long you plan to have it. So, a few options:
- 1 day or less: picnic in the park, dinner at a convention center, potluck at grandma’s
- 2-3 days: need overnight lodging, ideally all at the same place because who doesn’t love seeing familiar faces at the breakfast table or in the hotel pool?
- 3-7 days: need lots of space or overnight lodging
What’s the comfort level of the family members? Can everyone stay in the same house? Do they need their own hotel room so they have a space to recharge? Can everyone afford to spend x number of nights at a hotel or cabin? What about kids or accessibility? Are people okay with roughing it at a campground or is glamping the bare minimum?
The great aspect of hosting a reunion: you can generally mix it up! At our reunion, family stayed on the farm in rented RV’s, campers, and tents while others stayed in hotels, Airbnb’s, cabins, or their own homes. Here are some lodging options to consider:
- RV parks
- Personal Property: space for RV’s, campers, tents, hammocks
Food can be tricky. Do you cater? Do you cook? What if you can’t cook? What if the thought of cooking for 20, 50, 100 people terrifies you? Where do you even start?
- Decide how many meals will be provided and ask attendees to volunteer.
We don’t assign lunch because we typically have leftovers or people are out and about, entertaining themselves. So, a sibling’s family (one of those original 12 siblings) volunteers for either a breakfast or dinner. If a lot of adults in one family are attending, they’d sign up for a meal during a time when more people were expected or take two meals. We had 15 adults so we offered to make dinner on the Wednesday before “The Big Day”*.
The family who volunteered picks the food served, then does all the shopping. The host generally has grills, tables, a few crock pots, plates and utensils, etc. but sometimes people bring additional items if they’re driving to the location.
They then prep and cook the food, and are in charge of clean up after the meal.
Being responsible for one meal during the entire reunion, with all other meals paid for and cooked without your assistance? Worth it.
*The Big Day = the day we hold the horseshoe tournament, auction, and in recent years, have a catered meal. AKA the one day where we want everyone to attend and when we finally get to wear our t-shirts and take family photos (photos: we do one large family photo, then the original 12 sibling photos (so my immediate family plus all my aunts, uncles, and first cousins), an original siblings photo (aka The Aunts), sometimes a first cousins photo (aka my mom and her first cousins), new babies with The Aunts photo. There are so many options!)
- Cater the food. So easy, just pick the restaurant or company, select the food, and everything is done for you. This will be your most expensive option and can add up if you’re catering multiple meals, but is also the easiest!
- If catering is too expensive or y’all don’t want to spend time cooking yourselves, ask a friend to help out and do the physical cooking. You buy all the food, of course, but then you’re free to enjoy family time. We’ve done whole pigs, fried chicken, burgers and brats, and so much more. Whatever the friend is willing to cook or excels at, just say yes.
- If you’re only gathering for a meal, think about doing it potluck style. The main host (or best cook?) supplies the main course, then everyone else is assigned a side, appetizer, dessert, cutlery, drinks, etc.
- Want simplicity? You can set up a group order through Jason’s Deli (or another restaurant), where everyone submits their own order and pays online. Then it’s delivered to your time and location.
- Lastly, a restaurant is always an easy option to supply your food. However, the setting may not be ideal for conversation or catching up with multiple people so look into reserving a private room.
Whatever will you do with family for 1-7 days? I mean…you don’t even know each other. Do you even like each other? Here are a few suggestions:
- Talk. Catch up. Share life’s highs and lows.
- Games/Tournaments: horseshoes, bags (cornhole), bocce ball, volleyball, golf and so many more (We require everyone to pay $1 to enter the horseshoe or bags tournament (or both!) and the money goes towards reunion costs).
- Campfires: my absolute favorite part of the reunion. I love fires. Sitting around. Sometimes singing, sometimes dancing, sometimes a guitar will appear out of nowhere. Sometimes it’s loud and obnoxious and sometimes there’s a peaceful serenity of being surrounded by cousins that fills the soul. And don’t forget to roast some s’mores!
- Skits: we attended reunions on my mom’s dad’s side of the family as well, just not as often. However, this side, Aunt Ella had us do skits every time. I can still remember the chorus to the song my mom and her sisters wrote for us to sing..
Sound off, 1…2…3…4…UFF DA!”
Did I mention we’re Norwegian?
- Trivia night: either general trivia or trivia about the family. You can also quiz family members and have the answers ahead of time (like a bachelorette quiz when you question the groom).
- Card tournament: we’ve also had poker tournaments, cribbage, played spades and whist, etc.
- Host by a lake: rent a boat, jet skis, go swimming, fishing, kayaking, tubing, skiing, so many options
- Host at a resort or area that provides the entertainment (Las Vegas, Disneyworld, etc.)
- Hire the entertainment: band/DJ, comedian, magician, etc. (we’ve hosted a few DJ’s the night of The Big Day, the best being in a barn outside of Guttenberg, Iowa in 2005. The cousins of my generation all gathered in a circle, arms around each other, swaying, and belting out the lyrics. Then my mom’s generation of cousins formed a circle around us. Man, oh man, I love my family.).
- Historic sites, national parks, theme parks, museums, etc.
- Pass on a tradition! Here’s the older generation passing on to the younger generation how to make Lefse, a Norwegian flatbread made from potatoes. So good with butter and sugar! MmmMmm. And of course, I’m wearing an apron that says, “Uff-da!”.
How to Pay
I can still remember my mom sitting with her cousins at the end of each reunion, figuring out the costs of the food, electricity, water, porta potties, paper goods, etc. between all the families, then dividing by how many adults in your family attended.
Then about 16, maybe 18 years ago, we started auctions to raise money. People were told to bring unwanted (but in decent condition) stuff they had at home. Then other family members would bid on it. In the beginning, it was a lot of junk, and hilarious good fun because people would buy the items, then say “give it to” so and so who was either recently married or about to be married.
This last reunion, the hosts upped the game. Had a silent auction the first few days with better quality, homemade items. When we ended the silent auction, we did the main auction. The focus this time: bring something home made or a themed basket of some sort. The homemade bag boards went for $285! Generally, there’s an item that belonged to Aunt so and so and the bidding goes higher and higher. Some items go for $1. Some for hundreds. It just depends on what people want to spend.
Options to pay for the reunion:
- Add up the total costs of the event. Then each head of family pays a portion based on number of adults in their family (include kids who eat as adults).
- Auction: so fun! So exhausting. Definitely limit the time if you’re doing this, and suggest that people only bring 1, maybe 2 items.
- The generous: if you have one or two people that are able to cover the costs for everyone, say thank you, thank you, thank you.
TIP: If everyone is paying themselves and you need to pre-purchase a lot of items, think about requesting a certain amount up front from everyone attending.
Decide if there are any celebrations or events to focus on during the time you’re with your family. Here are a few possibilities:
- As mentioned above, when we started the auction, we liked to gift the newlyweds items to celebrate their marriage. I’m sure they didn’t want half the stuff but it was for a humorous cause.
- We’ve also celebrated the lives lost, those too soon, those missed. It’s not a lot of time spent, as we most likely attended a celebration of life, but it’s the acknowledgment, or the moment of silence.
- We’ve placed kisses on the newest little ones and exclaimed over how tall the middle schoolers have become.
- We’ve celebrated milestone birthdays and the finding of family members no one knew about (thanks 23AndMe).
What family reunion is complete without a t-shirt designed specifically for that event? Number one rule: have fun with it.
- Some families like to keep the same design every time, just change the dates and locations, or maybe the colors.
- For us, the host family makes all the decisions:
- Designed by a family member
- Designed by an artist friend
- Designed by the t-shirt company
- Theme of that reunion
We ordered shirts through Custom Ink because everyone can log in themselves, pick the size and design they want and either have it shipped to themselves for a fee or to the main host for free. So easy.
So, how do you feel? Are you ready to host your family reunion? It may seem daunting, but just send that first text to the heads of the family, and get the ball rolling.
Good luck! Let me know where and how long you decide to host your next family reunion!
p.s. Did you see my previous post, Organizing a Home Office Space for Productivity?