I have a confession to make.  Over time, my nieces’ and nephews’ tastes have become so unknown to me that I need input to decide from which merchant I should purchase the impersonal gift cards—I am just that clueless.  What’s more, my sisters’ kids (and my own son) are nearly grown, and they often bring significant others to family gatherings, so I find myself looking around on big holidays and wondering, “Who are these people?”  The clock’s hands seem to slow as we try to make conversation. Grandma’s reminiscences get less vivid every year, while the new guests are left trying to sort out who Joe and Martha (long ago departed) must have been.  As we become a little more like strangers to each other, it seems that the football game on television gets more attention than the people in the room do.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to enjoy the day this year, rather than simply “spend” it together?  Could this be the year when you turn off the television set and gather?

Tracey Stewart, wife of Jon Stewart and mom extraordinaire, has a great game she plays with her extended family.  On the site off her online parenting magazine, Moomah, she describes how they take the game “Guess Who?” and replace the cartoon-photos with family photos (contact sheets work well), and then ask family-related questions to whittle down to the ultimate solution.  She gives several examples from her own family, such as “Did this person leave pizza on the roof of the car and then drive away?” and “Did this person use orange lip liner to draw in her eyebrows from 1985 to 1987?”  This can be hilarious as your family cleverly mines its history for material with which to play the game.  And it can be illuminating for any newcomers who are hearing your family’s stories for the first time.  You can also prod the new fiancé with a few questions like “Does this person have something he has kept secret which his fiancée should probably know about before it’s too late?”

No?  Well, maybe something a little less personal if you have a lot of newcomers.  At the store the other day, I was perusing the “Party Games” section, and there were quite a few games that seemed quick to learn and truly fun to play.  Rather than dreading gigantic gatherings, these games made me wish I were an Osmond!

Here are a few that I liked:


The Game of Things (Parker Brothers)

300 topic cards and a score pad.  In each round, players write an answer to a topic such as “Things you would like to ask a psychic” or “Things you shouldn’t do with glue.” Answers can be as outrageous and hilarious, or as straightforward and precise, as you like. Everybody then takes turns trying to eliminate the others by guessing which player wrote which answer.  As the box says, “Before long, people go for the laugh instead of the score.”  The virtue of this game, and all the others, is that the mental challenges it poses can trigger wit, imagination, and wholehearted participation in shy guests who otherwise sit around, uncomfortable and nearly mute, through obligatory holiday gatherings.


Apples to Apples Party Box (Mattel)  

1,000 topic cards.  This game has won Games magazine’s “Party Game of the Year Award” and Mensa International’s “Mensa Select Award.”  The players match nouns to adjectives, and the judge for the round chooses his or her favorite combination—often, whatever is funniest.  As a conversation starter, Mattel suggests that the judge can explain the reason for the selection and the group can digress. If “Painful” is the adjective linked with “High School Reunions,” there’s a story to be told!  Then again, if “My First Kiss,” “Dandruff,” and “Gold Chains” come up, you may not want to know.



Reverse Charades (Retro Games)

This one is a bit more active and less personal—if that’s how your family rolls. Unlike “regular charades,” where a group watches one person act out a phrase or word, one person watches everyone else act out a phrase or a word.  This would be a fun game for families with small children—an adult and a child could make a team while the rest of the family tries to get them to guess.  Another similar game is Guesstures (Hasbro). But there’s no need to buy a game; we all went through a “charades” stage in our youth, and if you’ve forgotten the rules, here they are.



Malarky (Patch Products)

Also good for families with younger folks, it has 942 questions based on David Feldman’s book Imponderables. The winner is the one who tells the most believable bluff to questions like “What does the Q in Q-tips stand for?” and “Why did pirates wear earrings?”

Some other good ones are old classics, but all are guaranteed to lead you directly to a great deal more interaction than whether or not a team you never usually watch has made its fourth down. Some ideas:  Balderdash (Mattel), Taboo (Hasbro), Scattergories (Hasbro), and Loaded Questions (All Things Equal).  All call for imagination and ingenuity; all are likely to trigger, at least for a short time, the kind if exuberance that adds warmth to a family gathering. A stroll down the games aisle at your local toy store may yield even more ideas that are perfect for your particular party.

Once you have whiled away the hours engaged with each other, be sure you make the gift-giving fun too.  This is especially great if you have a somewhat small group.  In our family, we have six kids between us, and in years past we have taken to hiding their gifts around the house (and outside!) and giving them cryptic clues to the location.  These are often nonsensical without some consideration and the whole group tries to solve the riddle together.  Some of the locations have been a bit devilish, such as the present that was sealed in a Ziploc freezer bag and placed inside the dishwasher – that was running at the time of the search!  We have also hidden gifts inside Grandpa’s sock, and dangling from the roof on the patio.

Last year, I insisted that all our grown kids participate more.  So they wrote the clues for each other—and in some cases, the gift was inside the “gift.”  My niece received $50, which was sewn inside a little stuffed toy.  I admit it was rather macabre, making her cut the little dog open—but, well, she is 17 and she thought this was hilarious.  At any rate, at least the kids themselves thought it up and we parents got to sit back and try to solve the clues this time!

If you decide to do things differently this year, do give your family a little advance notice.  And you can offer sublime prizes to increase the motivation to participate.  Even if you meet some initial resistance—though I hope you won’t!—everyone will get into  the swing of things if you pour out some eggnog and move all snacks to the table.  And oh yes, TiVo the game, because . . . it’ll keep, but the kids will just keep growing up.

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