My extended family has a reunion every summer. It was the highlight of my summer vacation as a kid. I had a million cousins around my age. We had a tradition every year – the cousin play. I don’t know how the tradition started, but it became a mix of skits, music, and other antics. The parents were our audience. The adults had their own tradition – a sharing circle, in which each person had the chance to talk about their highlights from the last year.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s when I started to realize that these traditions were not the norm. And it was only in my 30s when I started to appreciate what they did for us. These traditions marked our gathering as a special occasion and gave us the opportunity to connect with each other. The cousin play and sharing circles were also expressions of our values – what we believe in and what’s important to us.
I started thinking about these traditions as I was planning to go back to my hometown for my high school reunion. I felt a mixture of excitement and dread. But most of all, I wanted it to be worth the complicated logistics and the expense.
Have you ever been to a family reunion, school reunion, or other gathering and left feeling like you didn’t really get to talk to anyone? Have you been to gatherings that seemed like a bunch of individuals rather than a cohesive group?
There are some simple things you can do to make your gathering more meaningful. By bringing ceremonial elements into your gathering, you can connect with each other and leave feeling like you’re part of something larger than yourself.
Suggestions for getting more out of any gathering:
1. Mark the time as special.
Depending on the situation, this can be informal or more formal. Formally, this could simply be a welcome message from a leader of the group. Informally, your group could form a circle or ring a bell, for example. The key is to signal that this time is special and to bring everyone present. This is also why we break out the special china and glasses for the holidays.
2. Acknowledge your relationship.
What connects your group? What do you have in common? Do you have shared history, values, or accomplishments? Acknowledging what you have in common out loud helps bring a feeling of cohesiveness.
3. Celebrate / Remember.
Acknowledge accomplishments and milestones! These can be personal or professional. In addition to making people feel good, celebrating helps reinforce the values you share and bring the group together. You may also consider remembering those who are not able to be with you that day, including those who have passed.
4. Structured share.
Give people a structured opportunity to share their lives with each other. When people don’t know each other well or don’t see each other very often, they won’t necessarily do this naturally on their own.
A more structured approach facilitates conversation and gives people permission to share things they may not normally tell others. In my family, we go around the room and take turns sharing whatever we feel is important. You could also ask people to respond to specific questions.
If a group is too large for everyone to talk, you can break people up into pairs or small groups for a smaller share. I’ve been at professional gatherings where we’re challenged to find out 2 or 3 key pieces of information from each person we meet that night.
5. Create a tradition.
Make it in line with what values you share as a group. It can be silly and fun, like the cousin play. Or more formal, like reciting the group’s motto. You may be surprised at just how much it means to people.
Have fun together, everyone!