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Reunions have become a mainstay of American life, bridging the growing geographic distance between family members and friends. While family reunions center around a shared past and heritage, school and military reunions offer attendees the chance to catch up with and compare themselves to peers.

Family Reunions

Although many families have a reunion tradition dating to the 1930s or earlier, reunions became widespread in early twenty-first century American culture because of an increased interest in genealogy and family heritage and the greater ease of travel. Each year, Americans celebrate an estimated 200,000 family reunions, many of them lasting three or more days and including more than 100 family members. Reunions are often organized months in advance: Older women commonly take on the task of contacting family members and planning activities, but large families may form planning committees that include younger generations.

Most reunions are held in summer, both to accommodate children's school schedules and to provide an alternative to gatherings during winter holidays. While smaller groups may meet at a relative's home, most families opt to gather at public sites such as hotels, campgrounds, and resorts. Wealthier families may splurge on a cruise vacation or convene at tourist sites such as Walt Disney World. The location of a reunion will often change from year to year to accommodate family members' interests and travel needs. Large families may hold a full reunion every few years, with smaller, regional gatherings in between.

Family reunions have a particularly rich history in African American culture and have historically served as a means to reunite northern blacks with relatives in the southern United States. Alex Haley's Roots —which became a popular TV miniseries in 1977—spurred Americans' interests in genealogy and may have contributed to a rise in black family reunions in the late twentieth century. Nearly half of African American travel each year is associated with a family reunion, according to Ebony magazine. Family members may convene at an ancestral home or meet in cities that contain black historical sites. One reunion expert recommended Atlanta's "Freedom Walk" as a meaningful family activity. Reunions have also become more common in Hispanic families—a recent reunion of a multigenerational family in Texas drew 2,500 people from six countries. European immigrants have also held prominent reunions in New York that connect relatives from both sides of the Altantic.

Many families reunite at campgrounds and resorts, engaging in shared outdoor leisure and sports activities. However, families also use reunions as a targeted time to explore family heritage, often emerging from the events with written histories, family trees, scrapbooks, recipe collections, photos, and videos. The Internet has encouraged the growth of family reunions, making it possible to both locate and invite far-flung family members, as well as create reunion web sites that enable others to share in the event. Many families use technology to connect with family members who can't attend, making conference calls or gathering around the computer to communicate in real time online.

Class Reunions

Some family members approach reunions with dread, but still feel an obligation to attend. High school and college reunions, in contrast, are generally voluntary events held at less regular intervals. Americans hold an estimated 150,000 high school reunions each year, with events becoming larger and more prominent since the baby boom generation celebrated its milestone anniversaries. Americans are most likely to attend their ten-year high school reunion: One-third of alumni attend their ten-year reunion, compared to one-fifth of alumni at the twenty-year event. Alumni are more likely to attend reunions if they considered themselves successful in high school, participated in extracurricular activities, or have kept in touch with old friends, who may well invite and encourage them to attend. Alumni who attend reunions are also more likely than non-attendees to have met perceived standards of success, such as holding a professional job or having a spouse and children. As is often the case with family reunions, alumni who live far from the school are more likely to attend than those who live nearby, as they consider the event a rare opportunity to reunite with classmates.

Because a graduating class represents a cross-section of one's peers—people of the same age, geographic and often economic background—school reunions have become a means for alumni to compare themselves to others. Alumni who attend reunions often work to improve their physical appearance—beginning a weight-loss regimen months in advance, or even undergoing minor plastic surgery. Award-giving is a common reunion custom, as classmates assess each other based on categories such as Most Gray Hair, Most Well-Kept Figure, and Most Times Married.

For private high schools, as well as colleges and universities, reunions have become a means to maintain contact with alumni who may contribute financially to the school. Because college alumni are more likely to attend twenty- and thirty-year reunions than earlier ones, organizers are increasingly trying to appeal to young alumni by planning family-friendly activities. Reunions have a long history at prominent universities such as Princeton. Beginning in the 1800s, alumni would return to the university the week before commencement to socialize over dinner and drinks and to cheer Princeton on in its annual baseball game against Yale. Old traditions run strong—reunions in the 1990s drew more than 9,000 alumni to march in the annual "P-rade" across campus.

Military Reunions

For Americans who have served in the military, reunions provide a way to honor shared experiences. Military reunions number in the thousands each year, many of them for World War II veterans, who are retired and have freedom to travel. Popular commemoration of World War II events in the mid-1990s also spurred a growth of such reunions. Most military reunions are held in the fall, often near a military base or at a resort with a golf course. According to American Demographics magazine, the service that reunites most often is the Navy, perhaps due to the close social networks that develop between officers on ships. Vietnam veterans are the least likely to celebrate reunions, both because of negative associations with the war and because they lack the structure and group cohesion of World War II veterans.

Negative experiences, however, are quickly giving rise to a new type of reunion: Meetings of retired and laid-off corporate and government employees who commiserate and network with each other, remembering the joys and frustrations of their work.

See also: Birthdays, Christmas, Weddings


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Katherine Lehman