By Alyce Repko
Family gatherings can be stressful for both those who are coming home as well as those who are preparing for them to arrive. As our family grew from six children to twenty individuals, I developed a strategy to reduce holiday stress and increase the fun and enjoyment for everyone.
The basic scheme includes preparing for the long-distance travelers, establishing a start time, appetizers, a songfest, food preparation and presentation without tears, games, and a dessert feast. The order of each activity is approximate. The goal is not keeping strictly to the schedule, but using the plan as a guideline. When the family is engaged in an activity, the focus is on the action and not annoyances.
Two of my adult children and their families live long distances from our home. In addition to making plans for the family day, I must also plan for meals and sleeping arrangements for those who will be at our home before and after the holiday or event. Before they arrive, I prepare and freeze what I am able; plan for easy, but satisfying meals; and ready the bedrooms with fresh bedding. The weary, road travelers can let themselves in at any hour should traffic and mishaps occur. The cross country voyagers, however, have had monumental challenges over the years. One memorable time, my husband and I were waiting at Newark Airport in the wee hours of the morning when we received a phone call directing us to La Guardia Airport! Having the bedrooms ready helps the wayfarers.
The start time of the event is critical. With six different adult children and their families, coordinating the occasion can be a challenge. There are many different family obligations, work schedules, driving distances, plane arrivals, and necessary early departure times that must be considered. I try to be as flexible as possible to meet everyone’s needs.
While everyone is arriving, appetizers and finger foods are added to the table and refreshments and snacks are enjoyed. When the hors d’oeuvres have disappeared, and everyone is present, we are ready to start the festivities.
We begin with a hymn sing. My grandmother was a voice teacher. For special occasions, she would gather our family around the piano, take out her popular music, and direct our singing as she played. I have very fond memories of those times, and I thought a variation might work for our family gatherings. At first, we sang popular Christmas songs for that holiday. It worked, and everyone liked it, but the family preference is to sing hymns for every occasion. There are enough hymnals for everyone, and plenty of volunteer pianists to play the hymns. I start by asking my father, the eldest, to choose a hymn. After everyone sings one or two verses, he chooses another person of any age to pick a hymn and everyone sings a verse or two of the hymn. This pattern continues until everyone who wishes to select a hymn has had a turn. Everyone wants a turn; it is a popular activity.
For fun, I “refuse” to choose a hymn to save time. More than one person will volunteer to pick one for me. If any of the grandchildren wish to play their violin, or recite Bible verses, this is the time for them to share. Dinner usually follows the singing.
My goal is food preparation and presentation without tears. The key, at least for me, is the slow cooker. Not only does this handy device cook all the meat for a large crowd, but it frees up the oven for other food items. In addition, if unexpected events delay the meal, turning the dial to “warm” retains the quality of the food without the concern of a ruined meal. I usually prepare an appetizer, vegetable selections, side dishes, gravy, and iced tea. My daughters—who live within reasonable driving distances—are very generous and bring finger foods, side dishes, and desserts.
All food offers are accepted and the variety is always welcomed by the family. Coffee is prepared at any time by anyone who wishes to make it. With so many coffee aficionados in the family, the French press works the best for us.
When dinner has ended, the cleanup is accomplished quickly allowing the games to begin. If the holiday is Christmas, the presents were probably opened before eating. If the occasion is Thanksgiving, it usually means board games. It could also mean grown men and women running around the house “shooting” soft darts at each other.
The 10′-long dining room table allows for three board games to be played simultaneously. The adult children play at one end, the youngest grandchildren and their grandmother are at the opposite end, and the older grandchildren play in the center of the table. There are enough choices for all age groups. No one is required or pressured to participate in any of the activities, but rarely does anyone refuse.
When the games end, everyone wins as the penultimate activity is the dessert feast! The games are packed into their boxes, and the table is filled with home baked goodies. After eating too much sugar, it is time to go home, save the family that is staying another day or two.
As each family leaves carrying some of the baked goods with them, they are also taking away memories of an enjoyable family gathering.
Alyce Repko is the wife of a hard-working husband, and a mother to six adult children who live in five different states. They live on a six-acre farm where they raise rabbits, chickens, and sheep. She puts up food, does freelance artwork, plays with a local orchestra, knits, sews, and buys too many books.