Family Reunions: Not Just for Grandparents

At a time when Americans are yearning for closeness, such gatherings are popular across generations.

A reunion convening 80 family members in Vermont (James P. Blair / Corbis / Getty)

One of Jordan Roberts’s latest graphic designs is bizarre and a little spooky: a skeletal creature dubbed “The Rhiney,” surrounded by strange iconography. Around the circle, Roberts, a graphic designer based in Phoenix, added the words “TO HUNT. TO HAUNT. TO EMBODY HORROR,” followed by “THE MAYNARD MONSTER CULT ETERNAL.”

courtesy of Jordan Roberts

The emblem only means something to an exclusive group: the 20 or so individuals who on a recent weekend convened in Fort Collins, Colorado, all donning tan T-shirts or tank tops with the emblem silk-screened in red ink onto the back. The group was Roberts’s family, gathered for a family reunion, as families do around the world. Scholars who’ve studied familial traditions in various cultures have repeatedly found that reunions have special significance among extended families that are physically disparate, whether because of political or economic circumstances, and who crave a sense of continuity across generations. Researchers have identified echoes of these themes among African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Korean families, for example.

Certainly the experience of being spread out geographically is common for many American families these days, and family reunions are remarkably popular. A poll conducted last year by the Family Travel Association and New York University found that 37 percent of adult parents in the United States with kids 17 or younger have taken their children to a family reunion. (Comparable historical data about the popularity of reunions are unavailable.) Their popularity, notably, appears to be consistent across age groups—older and younger Americans are just as likely to attend family reunions, according to the AARP. The main motivation for attendance: “reconnecting with old and new family members, making new memories, and sharing family history.”

That reasoning is similar to what Purdue University’s Juyeon Y. Kluin and Xinran Y. Lehto, hospitality and tourism scholars, found in a 2012 study of 300 U.S. adults who’d attended at least one such gathering. Rarely do people explicitly partake in these events for more typical vacation purposes (such as relaxation), the researchers found. Rather, they do so to maintain and remember family history, to engage in activities as a group, and to grow closer to one's spouse and children or familiarize those children with their extended family. These people see reunions “as an effective means of creating an 'altogether atmosphere,’" of “fostering the feeling of being close to each other,” and of experiencing “love and belonging”—a draw that the researchers suspect grows more intense the more geographically scattered families become.

Additionally, at a time when nearly half of Americans report feeling lonely at least sometimes, the multigenerational connections forged by family reunions can contribute to familial cohesion. Kluin and Lehto concluded that Americans are especially drawn to family reunions in this day and age, perhaps in part because of an “increasing emphasis on the basic values of family togetherness in contemporary society.”

Americans are drawn to reunions even if, at times, the gatherings can be stressful. “People in general realize that family trips are rarely easy—they rarely go as planned,” says Jason Dorsey, a consultant who researches Millennials and serves as president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, a consulting firm whose research seeks to dissolve the siloes separating different age groups. Yet, Dorsey continued, “they still decide to do it [a family reunion] again.” A family reunion is kind of like a workout: No matter how apprehensive a person feels going into it, or how beat she feels coming out, she continues to partake in the ritual because it’s so nourishing.

In text messages, Roberts explained that his T-shirt design was inspired by his grandpa Maynard, who loved to tell his younger kin “stories that’d he’d populate with these specific creatures of his invention.” He’d often simulate “convincing-enough” encounters with those invented monsters during regular “nighttime haunted walks” through his “almost-pastoral backyard.” Those kids are, like Roberts, now adults. The terror Maynard once instilled in them has since evolved into nostalgia—for their gullibility, for the make-believe, and, of course, for Maynard.

“The great part is that these stories were so pervasive, the shirt connected instantly with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins equally, as we all had encountered them together and apart as long as Maynard lived to be able to tell them,” Roberts told me. “It was almost as if that side of the family had a shared zeitgeist that only existed among all of us.”