My assigned theme is "Family Gatherings." I reflected upon my own experiences of Christmases past, researched videos to observe other families' gatherings, and interviewed a variety of people about the topic, including 2 "experts" in the field in order to find needs or areas for improvement and change.
Obviously I could not organize a grand holiday family gathering to experience when no holiday was currently present. Instead, I reflected upon my past experiences at my family's major holiday get-together: Christmas Eve. My dad's side of the family does not congregate, but my mom's large family meets once every year on Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle's house. The night usually consists of eating, drinking, and small talk. The kids normally play in the basement and the adults mingle in selected groups upstairs. What I've noticed is that there is never a time when the whole family is engaged in the same topic. There are usually people hiding upstairs or staying at the bar avoiding the usual family drama. There is no organized system of giving out gifts because not everyone gives and receives gifts. It is normally just between godparents and godchildren on this night. There is also not an organized system of bringing food or decorating, this all seems to fall upon my poor Aunt. It seems like no one ever really knows when to arrive or leave, either. People just come and go throughout the evening.
Here are some images of the last Christmas Eve party:
It was also difficult to observe "family gatherings" because most holiday parties are not occurring yet, and it would be rude to intrude on a family's special event. Instead, I searched for family holiday parties on YouTube to get a sense of what others experience.
Here are some of the videos that I found most interesting:
I found it really strange that this woman filmed them driving for two minutes (Obviously the event is very important to her!) and appeared distant from the family while she was filming the event. Couldn't there be a way for her to remain engaged and still document the event? The kids and the adults are separated in their activities.
This was interesting to see the types of games this family plays during Christmas that involves everyone.
I found it interesting that this family cooked together during the party. A lot of people seemed bored and disengaged.
I provided a sample of direct quotes from my interviewees and underlined information that I thought provided insights into challenges and areas where improvement could occur.
A sample of the types of questions I asked and built off during my interviews:
Can you describe your most recent experience at a holiday family gathering?
How far into your extended family do you include in gatherings?
What typically occurs? What do you think should occur?
Is the holiday season the only time that your family all gathers during the year?
Is there one person in your family that normally handles the planning?
How do you exchange gifts?
Do you often find it difficult to spark meaningful conversation during family gatherings? Can you explain?
At any point is everyone engaged in the same event/topic?
Do you look forward to family gatherings? Why or why not?
Does alcohol have a negative affect during family gatherings?
How could your family gatherings go more smoothly?
Do family gatherings often cause stress or bring up pleasant or unpleasant memories?
What are the differences in the ways children and adults interact?
What areas do people typically congregate at?
Interview #1: Susan
Susan is my aunt. Now, I know that typically it is not advised to interview a member of one's own family, but in this case, I'd consider her an expert in the field. Susan has experienced over 50 years of holiday family gatherings in her own life and 2 different marriages. She is the fifth child of a family of 10 children that has grown to include over 30 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren. Here are some highlights from what she had to say that provide insight to possible areas for improvement:
"Our extended family gathers every Christmas Eve at the home of my brother Bob and his wife Lori. This tradition has evolved over 25 years. There is just one party each year that involves the entire extended family of approximately 60-70 people, and Christmas Eve is it. The gathering used to occur at my parent's home but as the family grew it became impossible because of the numbers."
"...Because our family is so large and there are so many people, there is never a year that has not included varying degrees of familial drama within the months building up to Christmas Eve. Many years, those dramas would spill into the party and cause varying levels of discomfort depending on who was involved. In the past years, I believe the Christmas party has become an oasis from the monthly troubles that evolve throughout the year, and family members seem to try extra hard to leave their troubles at the doorstep and just enjoy each other's company for one blessed night."
"The home is large enough that the majority of people could separate into small groups and people in controversy could just rotate and avoid each other while still enjoying the company of the smaller groups. There is a concerted effort for conflicted souls to just flit from group to group, cautiously avoiding whatever group offensive members are chatting with until that individual or individuals moves on to the next group.
"In the past, gifts were exchanged at my mom and dad's, but it just became too confusing. There are serious class definitions within the family, the haves and the have nots, and I think my parents couldn't handle the public presentations of gifts because they were also on the receiving end of gift presentations that were just too hard for them to handle diplomatically. In short, their wealthy children gave them expensive gifts, and their less fortunate children gave less expensive gifts and the comparisons, the oohs, the aahs, the required reactions became too much for them to handle because they like everything to be equal. For many years there was a no gifts policy at the party but it is changing."
"Although gift giving has slowly trickled back into the holiday party, it is a covert operation."
"f I could change something about our holiday party, I would improve the climate for gift giving and adopt an orderly confusion that would allow people to just have fun with it. I have never understood the "equal" concept that is so rampant...it simply doesn't work, because life isn't equal. It seems that if everyone participated in a name pick, and every one knew that each person would receive at least one gift because of it, then it would be ok for all the other exchanges to just occur. It would be fun if all seventy names were drawn from one source....just the random nature alone of exchanges between otherwise isolated family members would cause comradery and fun."
"Mutual baby adoration is one behavior that occurs communally: our Christmas party is the best place for the family to admire and enjoy new editions."
"There is never a time at the party where everyone is engaged in the same topic or event, because there are too many people, and because many of those people are engaged in the conflict avoidance dance, so that wouldn't work."
"I am concerned that the familial Christmas Eve will end when my mother dies and it makes me sad. Sometimes I feel that her presence is the glue that holds the family together, if only for one night."
Interview #2: Sarah
Sarah is my co-worker. I recently found out that she is an only child and was adopted so I thought that she might have some unique perspectives about family gatherings because of this.
"My family generally gathers around the Holidays. For thanksgiving we normally all go to Florida and Christmas is spent at my parents house, just the three of us (as opposed to florida where my cousins, aunt and uncle are present)."
"Mostly the larger gatherings are a stress for me as the closest people to my age are either 13 years older or 13 years younger than me because my parents adopted me late in life. "
I used to be a focal point in the family gatherings as a child because I was the youngest in the family. Obviously, as I've gotten older, my cousins have gotten married and started their own families which means new young children to give attention to. I'm glad I don't get all of the attention anymore."
"Because of the age gaps within my family, I've never felt strongly connected to most of my family."
"It's hard to have any deep conversations with my extended family because most of the things I want to talk about they have no connection with or have either outgrown or not come to that place in their lives."
"Family gatherings have no real use of alcohol as my cousin battles with alcoholism."
Interview #3: Nathaniel
Nathaniel comes from a large close-knit family and also specializes in genealogy research. He provides genealogical services to enhance family parties. For this reason, I included him as an additional "expert" in the field.
"Unlike most people I know, my family gathers obsessively all throughout the year."
"Sometimes people show up that no one's ever seen before. We just pretend they're a cousin of some sort."
"Usually nothing occurs besides drinking, eating, and talking. I think these gatherings could have more in-depth conversations than they do, a little less drinking and food, more personal revelations, poetry recitations, sudden outbursts of rage followed by joyful weeping and tenderness."
"I would like to see constructive but light-hearted group projects being planned at these gatherings: plans to grow mushrooms together in an abandoned nearby structure, to protest certain city council decisions on the steps of city hall, to start a fan club, etc."
"It is difficult to spark meaningful conversation with this side of my family (maternal). They are very sensitive people who too often take things personally. They are also quite ignorant about almost everything and don't appear to have any inclination to learn more about the world around or inside them."
"Sometimes I look forward to family gatherings. Despite being ignorant, they are very accepting and open to other people's beliefs and lifestyles. This makes for a warm, relaxed atmosphere. I like being near my relatives because we share so much experience and because of this they feel like home. At the same time I don't like being near them because we don't share many interests because few of them have any."
"As a genealogist who has been present during other family gatherings, I've noticed that many families are more fragmented and merely civil with one another than my family. The closeness is somehow not there. Family members seem to be counting the minutes left before they can stop smiling awkwardly and politely excuse themselves."
"Do I believe my service enhanced their event? I can't help but notice that it momentarily dissolves the often petty familial fragmentations when you start to discuss histories shared through blood."
Problems, Opportunities, Insights
The main areas for improvement I saw were in gift-giving, organizing an engaging activity, keeping the spirit alive year after year, and documenting the event in a meaningful way.
Here are some problem statements that I created from my interviews:
Susan, middle child of 10 in an extremely large family and experienced family party go-er, needs a way to reorganize the system of gift-giving because currently not everyone at the party receives gifts and often people are worried about the exchange being fair and equal.
(Reference quotes: "In the past, gifts were exchanged at my mom and dad's, but it just became too confusing. There are serious class definitions within the family, the haves and the have nots, and I think my parents couldn't handle the public presentations of gifts because they were also on the receiving end of gift presentations that were just too hard for them to handle diplomatically. In short, their wealthy children gave them expensive gifts, and their less fortunate children gave less expensive gifts and the comparisons, the oohs, the aahs, the required reactions became too much for them to handle because they like everything to be equal. For many years there was a no gifts policy at the party but it is changing."
"Although gift giving has slowly trickled back into the holiday party, it is a covert operation.")
Sarah, a millennial who often feels disengaged from her spread-apart in age family, needs a way to spark meaningful conversation with people of all ages at the gathering and actually enjoy her time there.
(Reference quotes: "Because of the age gaps within my family, I've never felt strongly connected to most of my family."
"It's hard to have any deep conversations with my extended family because most of the things I want to talk about they have no connection with or have either outgrown or not come to that place in their lives.")
Nathaniel, an educated genealogist of a large family of farmers, needs to find a way to organize an event that the whole family can participate in because usually nothing stimulating occurs at these gatherings.
(Reference quote: "Usually nothing occurs besides drinking, eating, and talking. I think these gatherings could have more in-depth conversations than they do, a little less drinking and food, more personal revelations, poetry recitations, sudden outbursts of rage followed by joyful weeping and tenderness.")