Keeping a Growing Family Connected

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Every year I host our family Christmas party. I was one of five siblings. We are all married now with children and grandchildren of our own. So when I say I host our family Christmas party, I’m saying fifty or so folks comprised of mostly relatives, but also friends that have come and gone through the years, gather at my home for food, fun and fellowship.

Each year the party is familiar, filled with tradition, exciting as we catch up with each other and even meet new people that have connected with our family and comfortable as we rest in our love for one another and for most of us, our love for the Lord.

As a child it never crossed my mind the effort that would have to be made to keep our family together. The holidays were special and seemed effortless. But then my dad passed away and mom moved in with my husband and I making us “Grand Central” for family gatherings. This taught me that nothing worthwhile is ever without effort. We are a “more the merrier” type of family so it suited us well to fill this role. While at times our resolve would be tested, together we were a team that became a well oiled machine.

The goal is never perfection. It is fellowship without guilt. Life happens to all of us. Over the years our family has been touched by divorce, death, disease and crime. This makes us human. I’m sure our family in many ways is like your family. When the goal is to stay connected you need the planner of the family to spearhead organizing a party or reunion that can become a family tradition for your family as well. The key is to plan but be flexible, and don’t take things personally. You will never be able to get 100% participation because life happens. Be it illness, pregnancies or careers, there will be times when people just can’t come. If you had 100% participation, that’s when you’d really need to be flexible!

I begin the planning by talking with key people to choose the date. The first call is always to my sister in law as she and my brother travel the most and have the largest family. Then I check with my sister who lives out of town and still works to determine her availability. Once I narrow it down I ask the local siblings if they can make the preferred date. With all the siblings on board for a date, I text or email the extended families the date firm invitation. It’s important that family members do not feel judged by a regrets RSVP. They need to know they will be missed and we’ll look forward to having them next year. With their parent committed to the date they are more motivated to adjust their schedules. It is an easy way to knock a family visit off the list without having to commit to a week of vacation.

Much of our family is local and to come only involves a commute across town. For those family members that have to travel to attend I do my best to accommodate them so as not to cause them to incur hotel expenses. With futons, sofas and air mattresses I house as many as I can at my home. Others will stay at other local family members homes. Occasionally one may opt for a hotel for their own reasons. At most my out of town guests stay two nights. many only one night. For the first day of arrivals I prepare a big pot of chili and that is the last meal I cook for the weekend. I keep dry cereals, fruit and leftover chili for my house guests. They know they are welcome to cook or eat out if they prefer.

Party day I will fix a bacon and egg type breakfast for my husband and I and any other house-guests that are interested. The rest of party day the kitchen is busy with teamwork preparing the goodies for the evening. Others won’t prepare foods exactly as you would or even load the dishwasher “properly” but those things don’t matter. The point is family interaction and participation. Over the years my niece has become the one who makes the fudge. My sister is the organizer and will set up the serving stations and leads clean up. One of my daughters is heavily involved in food prep while other’s supervise grand-kids play. I place a child’s gate around the Christmas tree as we are still at the stage of having toddlers in the family. This is more for my sanity but also to aid the moms in keeping track of their young children.

Secondly I plan the menu taking any special diets into consideration. I do not plan the entire food list around diet needs, I simply plan options that meet their need. For instance I have two grand-kids with gluten issues so when they can come I make sure there are gluten free options for them. I plan family favorite appetizers, finger foods and desserts. With fifty people I do not plan a sit down dinner but offer plenty of seating between the kitchen, dining, living room and screened porch. I use paper goods to streamline clean up. I opt to prepare the key menu items to round out the menu and provide them myself. I supplement the menu with taking up offers from others to bring something. I usually suggest they bring something their family will love to eat. I’ll make punch or a specialty tea, have bottled water and can drinks on hand cutting down on the need for cups and ice.

Thirdly I set a schedule for the evening. This is not to strap you or add stress, but to keep things flowing as time will get away and the evening over before you’ve had a chance to do all the things you’d hoped. For us our annual Christmas party includes the tradition of Christmas caroling our neighbors. If our party is on a week night I schedule the caroling no sooner than 6:00 to allow folks to get home from work. If it’s on a weekend we’ll carol from 5:30 to 6:00 then gather back at the house. My husband will say grace then we’ll eat until 7:00-7:30.

Another tradition we have is Santa visiting those under ten. The way this plays out has evolved over the years. When sending out the invitation to the Christmas party I ask for those who have little ones that they’d like to receive a gift from Santa to bring a wrapped gift with their child’s name on it. When they arrive I take these gifts and relocate them to Santa’s dressing room. Years ago we purchased a Santa suit from Walmart and for many years my brother in law played a funny Santa. Now he has passed the baton to my nephew who has upheld the Santa tradition he grew up with. We enjoy his version of imitating Santa as much as we did our down to earth original Santa. I have Santa come down the stairs with his bag of goodies between 7:00 and 7:30 before the little ones totally shut down. Once Santa is done we try to get a full family photo generally taken by one of the friends who attends. Again not looking for everybody to smile but to get as many heads in the picture as we can. Perfection not the goal…making good memories is the goal.

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This is followed with the last event of the evening that is relatively new to our nearly 40 year family party tradition. When the party invitation is first extended a reminder to bring a wrapped gift with a $10 cap for the optional gift exchange is included. For the last 7 years we have done a white elephant gift exchange. To facilitate this I have someone count the number of participants, make the pieces of numbered paper and to have each person draw a number during our dinner hour. After the person who has number one has opened their gift, the next number can either select a new gift or take an opened gift from someone prior forcing them to choose another unopened gift to open. The rules for this game are declared at the start and agreed to by all.

After the last gift is claimed folks gather their gifts and belongings and it is a natural close to the party. This evening is devoted to spending time together, laughing, talking and reconnecting. If folks leave with a smile you have succeeded and can go to bed with a smile yourself…the mess will keep till tomorrow.

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Tommie-Anne Kotch lives in Florida with her husband. She keeps her grandchildren in her home during the workday. She enjoys time with her family and supporting others.