The idea of gathering together all of one's family members at a central place and at a given time emerged as a popular American pastime in the 1960s, although family reunions had been held in the United States since the 1880s. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, however, reunions grew in both popularity and scale as the baby boomer generation aged. To many people, reunions represent an opportunity to return to the "old days" when families resided in the same locale and knew each other very well. While many Americans attend family reunions for purely nostalgic reasons, others are motivated by the urge to get in touch with the family's "roots."
During the 1980s, the advent of computers and the Internet began an ongoing interest in amateur genealogy. The many Americans who trace their heritage are often the primary organizers of a family reunion. They wish to share their findings with family members as well as gather new information through personal contact. Furthermore, the Internet has made it easier to advertise reunions as well as to find and correspond with distant relatives.
Some reunions attract a gathering in the hundreds, often held at or near convenient popular resort areas, though smaller reunions remain common. Reunions are usually held in June, July, or August to correspond with family vacations and, since many are often held outdoors at state parks or campgrounds, to coincide with good weather. Making an occasion of mealtimes is an essential ingredient of the American family reunion, typically with each family contributing dishes to the large buffets that are held. The get-togethers might last anywhere between one and three days, with the participants enjoying pastimes that range from games and sports to sightseeing outings, but for many the most enjoyable pastime of all is sitting around talking. Recalling memories of youth, and passing those memories on to the next generation, are important goals of a family reunion. Many adults want their children to get to know their cousins or other extended family members, who influenced their own lives.
Because of their large scale, by the 1990s reunions had come to involve much careful planning and organization. Near the close of a reunion, families often hold a meeting to elect officers to organize the next get-together and perhaps set a date and place where it will be held. A family historian is usually entrusted with the task of recording the events of the reunion, as well as keeping the family history and genealogy up to date. Some families even appoint a fundraising committee to organize events that will pay the costs of getting everybody together and accommodating them. Despite the hard work and responsibilities that go into the arranging of a successful gathering, families enjoy being a part of the communal group that makes up a large reunion.
To commemorate the occasion, organizers often provide a variety of souvenirs for family members to purchase. T-shirts printed with the family name, and the date and place of the reunion are common, while other popular items might include caps, bumper stickers, tote bags, pencils, complete genealogies and family recipe books. Family members also take an abundant number of photographs and home videos to preserve the memory of the gathering.
By the 1990s it was estimated that over 200,000 American families attend a family reunion every year. In an age of smaller nuclear families and changing definitions of a family in general, reunions offer an opportunity for many people to feel a sense of belonging in a larger, extended family unit. Many families are forced to live far distant from their relatives because of work or other circumstances, and reunions give them an opportunity to keep in touch. Whatever a family's interests, or those of the individuals within it, reunions offer something for everyone to enjoy within the enhanced sense of close community that they create.
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Mergenhagen, Paula. "The Reunion Market." American Demographics. April 1966, 30-34.
Swenson, Greta E. Festivals of Sharing: Family Reunions in America New York, AMS Press, 1989.