ALL TOGETHER NOW: How to plan a family reunion
PERHAM, Minn. —Among the games, boating and group meals, the Kolle family reunion includes a presumably contentious activity — an airing of grievances.
Earlier this month, during the 45th annual weeklong reunion that brought about 170 relatives of the nine Kolle siblings to a lake resort near Perham, 35 people gathered to plan for next year’s event, and avoid repeating mistakes.
“All ages are welcome at that meeting,” said Maysie Aarestad, a West Fargo, N.D., resident and one of the Kolle family siblings. “I think that really is important. It makes people feel like they have input.”
Instead of devolving into a family feud, she said the meeting keeps the lines of communication open and gets the four generations invested in getting together again the next year.
Splitting up the responsibilities of organizing a family reunion, no matter how small it is, can make the job easier for everyone while also tapping into the talents and personalities of the relatives, according to Alicia Weigel, owner of Bliss Events planning service in Fargo, N.D.
Maybe one cousin is a good cook who can easily plan a menu to accommodate everyone’s diets, while another might be the perfect choice to scout possible locations and make a reservation.
“You’ve got some flexibility for delegating responsibilities out to people,” Weigel said. “It doesn’t have to fall just on one person because with a family reunion, you’re kind of all participating, and you need a few people to help run things.”
That applies, too, to clean-up duty — no one wants to spend the reunion picking up after everyone else, she said.
Planning a large event can be complicated, and Weigel said it becomes problematic if families wait too long to start.
Generally, families should begin the preparations six to nine months before the date, she said. That’ll give relatives plenty of time to schedule vacation days at work, save up for plane tickets and make reservations.
The Kolle family has gone to the same Perham-area lake resort for more than 30 years, and Aarestad said they reserve the spot on an annual basis. They’ve already set the dates for next year’s reunion, she said, and some relatives will start over the winter working on the annual family “newsletter” of photos, birth and wedding announcements, and a schedule for the 2015 reunion.
Plan by vote
It’s easier than ever to build consensus when planning a family reunion, Weigel said. Online tools, including Facebook events and Internet polls, allow families to offer up several potential dates for a gathering or possible locations. Then pick the one that will work best, she said.
Even a low-key family reunion should be treated like other large gatherings — and that includes sending out invitations, according to Trever Hill, owner of Fargo interior decorating and event planning business Home Suite Couture.
But it isn’t a wedding, he said, and the invitations don’t need to be elaborate or expensive. Whether it’s a group email, text messages or letters mailed to the grandparents, he said it’s good for everyone to have some sort of reminder they can look at to know the location, time and date of the reunion, especially if it’s planned far in advance.
The invitation also should include any expectations of attendees — if they should bring an appetizer, for example, or be prepared for an afternoon on a pontoon.
“Something that they can actually see, just a confirmation, is really key for planning any type of event,” he said.
Fun for everyone
Family reunions should include activities for attendees, Weigel said, and the options should appeal to people of all ages.
Younger kids often enjoy bounce houses, which can be rented and set up at events, she said. Older relatives might enjoy a friendly pinochle tournament or Scrabble match, while some adults would be happy given a free afternoon to go shopping or boating.
The key is to plan activities that require more than one person — even the distant relatives who don’t know each other might strike up conversation during a game of kickball or a sing-along around a campfire, Weigel said.
The weeklong Swanson family reunion, held every few years at a resort near Walker, Minn., brings about 60 relatives to spend a week together at Leech Lake. But no one has a chance to get bored, according to Thief River Falls, Minn., resident and family member Susan Buhl.
The clan hosts a light-hearted “Family Olympics” competition, golf tournament, bean bag tournament and cook-off, in addition to swimming, fishing and waterskiing on the lake. Kids are kept busy with games and hands-on craft activities, while the adults look forward to karaoke and a white elephant gift exchange.
“We just have a great time together,” she said. “We all support each other, so it ends up being a fun time with everyone here.”
Avoid dining distress
Pulling off a successful meal for dozens of relatives all comes down to planning, Weigel said – especially as more people ditch gluten, skip animal products or follow other restricted diets.
Most caterers will offer several options to choose from, giving both vegetarians and carnivores in the family something to eat, she said. But catering a meal can get expensive, and many family reunions won’t require the luxury.
Instead, Weigel said potlucks can be an easy solution. The gluten-free relatives can bring an entrée that they will eat to the meal, for example, while the gluten lovers can bring their breads, pizza and pasta salads.
Or consider serving a meal a la carte, Hill said. If lasagna is the main course of the night, a smaller batch can be made with gluten-free pasta and vegetarian ingredients to give many dieters a tasty choice while making the others happy, too.
Even a quick lunch from the grill can work for most diners if f a family cooks up burgers, brats and veggie burgers, and leaves the toppings up to each person, Hill said.
“They can add what they want, and they don’t have to have what they don’t want,” he added.
Worth the effort
The six sisters of the Swanson family wondered if their occasional reunions in Walker would go on after their parents died, Buhl said. But they’ve continued to get together once they realized how much it meant to their own families.
“It was that generation, our kids, that said, ‘This is important enough to us,’ ” she said.
The reunion is important for the Kolles, too. The nine siblings suffered a loss early in life when their mother, Mabel, died, and the kids were raised by their father, Fritz.
But even after Fritz and one of the siblings passed away, the other relatives all agreed to keep getting together every year, and they’ve already started talking about how to mark the 50th reunion in 2019.
“No matter how small or how large a family is, these reunions are a lot of work,” Aarestad said. “But they’re so worth it. I really believe they strengthen families. Every year, we just are blessed by our family reunions.”