Ethnic Themes

Ethnicity flavors all our lives and should be the spice of reunions as well. Celebrate all the ethnic groups that make up your family at the reunion. Use ethnicity in your theme, entertainment, tours and, of course, everyone’s favorite: food! Many reunions are fortunate enough to still be in touch with relatives abroad and enjoy including foreign cousins. Feature costumes, crafts, culture and the traditions of your forbearers. Exhibit family artifacts: a fan from “the old country,” great-grandpa’s glasses, utensils and tools.

John Gurda, author of fascinating family and community histories, has often written about his Johnson Family Reunions. “What reunions offer is a chance to renew family links, to find our places in the story that began in distant lands so many decades ago. Generations later, the story continues. At its heart is the theme that Torger and Johanne Johnson learned in the 1870s, the same theme that unites and animates every family: Life is precious. Pass it on.”

Ruth Montgomery reported that Medicine Lodge, Kansas, was the site of an international reunion of the Lillieqvist family. Thirteen family members from Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark joined sixty relatives from throughout the US. Miniature flags representing each country adorned dinner tables and the celebration included singing national anthems.

John Lulias, of Palm Harbor, Florida, and his extended family take turns hosting Greek Easter reunions in Tarpon Springs, Florida. After a 40-day fast, the Easter dinner includes all the usual Greek dishes and special bread baked with red-dyed hard-boiled eggs inside representing the blood of Christ. It is good luck to get a slice of bread containing the egg. Favorite activities during reunions include playing cards, reminiscing and singing traditional Greek songs.

The first German/American Smyser Family Reunion in America was held in York, Pennsylvania in 1845. One hundred thirty three American cousins attended and resolved to hold a similar celebration in 1945 – modified to June 1946 because of the war. Over 1,500 Smyser cousins attended. Activities included a reenactment about the widow Anna Barbara Schmeiser and her children Matthias, Margaretta and John George, arriving by the ship Brittania into the Philadelphia harbor on September 21, 1731.

Plan an old-fashioned Gaelic ceilidh, pronounced “kaylee.” This is where the phrase “to sing for your supper” originated. Everyone is supposed to take part in the entertainment with a song, story, joke, dance or performance. Live pipers may be hard to find but cassette tapes of bagpipe music are everywhere. Drape tables and people with your clan tartan.

The Lorenz family is scattered from California to New York. Part of each Lorenz Family Reunion celebration includes teaching youngsters crafts, facts and information pertinent to their Polish heritage. One recent session included authentic dyes purchased in Poland.

Many ethnic museums and exhibits throughout the Midwest are ideal places to schedule reunion visits. Helen Cochran, Gary, Indiana, reports that the Cochran Family Reunion always includes a significant tour that offers younger family members opportunities to learn about and take pride in their heritage. The Cochrans’ Chicago reunion included a visit to the Du Sable Museum of African-American History and Art.

Cousins from Germany joined American descendants of brothers Michael and Johann Kohls. Only the oldest American Kohlses spoke German and only the visiting German teenagers spoke English. Middle-aged cousins smiled at each other a lot – but smiles, after all, are universal. Everyone understood the genealogy photo albums with names and dates and laughed at childhood pictures. Seeing connections in the family tree strengthened new friendships and fostered a hope to meet again in Germany.

Descendants of Danish brothers Andrew and Rasmus Larsen, who married sisters Marie and Ane Davidson, began their reunion day with services at the Lutheran church their ancestors attended. They walked through several cemeteries to visit ancestral graves. Everyone was enchanted with one cousin’s videotape of a visit to Denmark. He interviewed a relative who still lives there and included churches and towns their ancestors called home before emigrating to the US. About thirty relatives were so excited they started planning a trip to Denmark.

W. Robert Jackson, Youngstown, Ohio, described The Rashid Club of America of descendants of five very young Rashid refugee cousins who abandoned life in Judiet-Marjaroun, Lebanon, in 1896 to emigrate to the US. Their annual reunions, started in 1928, are held over the July 4th holiday in major cities. The family has grown to about 1,500 members in twenty eight states and Canada. Members who pay dues are called delegates and elect club officers at the close of every reunion.

Rashid reunions are festive and ethnically warm. Old-timers still speak Lebanese. The first night is Arabic Night. Tabbouleh, kibbee, pita bread, stuffed grape leaves, spinach pies and baklava are get-in-the-mood foods. Saturday is reserved for a formal, sit-down dinner and ballroom dancing.

Flora Toms O’Hagan tells of Cornish Cousins from the US, Canada and Cornwall gathered in Ely, Minnesota. Wonderfully talented cousins from Cornwall shared the excitement of what it means to be Cornish with a hands-on workshop to create “a shoal of fish lanterns.” Willow branches were bent and shaped into fish skeletons, then covered with tissue paper and glued. Candles were mounted in lanterns for a hot fish parade in the style of an anuual Cornish procession which celebrates a story about a man without kin or wife who set out into stormy waters to catch fish to feed his starving village of Mousehole. Villagers lit his way to shore with lanterns. This miracle of food is celebrated on December 23rd with Starry Gazey fish pie.

As far back as 1410, Pout families lived in and around Canterbury, Kent, England. Some Pouts emigrated to Australia and North America, where their descendants live today. Jill Nielsen, Burnaby, British Columbia, corresponded with a cousin in Canterbury who had researched the family. Reunion plans resulted. More than 100 people attended the week-long reunion. A doubledecker bus outing was included to visit farmlands once owned or worked by Pout families. They stopped at a vineyard for cream tea — scones with strawberry preserves and clotted cream, served with tea — and sampled the wine and discovered a family trait that everyone shared a taste for sweet wine.

Rose M. Vaughn-Mallet, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made shirts for the Vaughn Family Reunion for each family branch in separate kinte cloth pattern colors. The Kinte cloth pattern originated in Ghana and is honored here as a tradition. Black represents people; red — life; yellow — health; blue — love and tenderness; and green/white — bountiful harvest.

Each branch of the Jenkyns clan hosts a social hour sometime during their reunion. Each happy hour has a theme, with hosts dressed in costume. Memorable scenarios include a high seas pirate theme and the Roaring Twenties (with even the little girls in flapper costumes). One group portrayed Welsh miners in recognition of the Jenkyns’s Welsh heritage, with wives in period peasant dress.

From The Family Reunion Sourcebook by Edith Wagner, 1999, Lowell House/McGraw Hill.