Every year, a couple of days before the Fourth of July, Cynthia Maser goes through a familiar ritual. She pulls out her red-, white- and blue-striped socks and an American flag blouse made of silk and packs them in a suitcase.
She makes the trip from her Wilmington, Del., home to Havre de Grace for the Adams family reunion, her clan's annual get-together. Maser looks forward to returning to her roots, recalling vividly past celebrations spanning 50 years that date to her childhood in a house on Washington Street.
"We would all sit in our front yard and watch the parade. Then we'd walk to the park at night to see the fireworks," she said. "We had such a great time that, for me, the Fourth of July is better than Christmas."
Summer is the busy season for family reunions, and the Fourth of July is the most popular day for the events, which have grown in popularity and complexity. Many families have taken the traditional one-day gathering and turned it into an event that is longer (sometimes up to four days), bigger (some attracting thousands of guests), costlier (averages flutter between $1,000 and $3,000) and more elaborate (some involve travel to ancestral lands and DNA testing) than ever before.
Ione Vargus, who founded the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in 1990, holds an annual convention for reunion planners and family representatives. The event has drawn sizable crowds for years, said Vargus, a former dean of the School of Social Administration at Temple, who lives in Medford, Mass.
And Vargus said that, in recent years, she has seen a rise in the number of businesses that cater to reunions attending the convention, including this year's, held in March in Pittsburgh.
"Family reunions are a hot market, and hotels, spas and cruise lines know it," said Vargus, 76. "These businesses want to meet the families while they are planning their event and often offer them incentives to get their business."
Edith Wagner, founder of Reunions Magazine, which is based in Milwaukee, has seen a similar increase in the number of hospitality businesses entering the reunion market.
"Reunions have money," said Vargus. "But because of their size, people are always looking for bargains."
With research showing that 20 percent of all reunions include golf, Wagner said, golf courses are trying to woo families that are planning events.
"So some golf courses might offer the family a discounted rate," Wagner said. "Or spas might offer a special package to family members."
Hotels often give families a complimentary hospitality suite to use as a central meeting place. For families like the Masers, holding a reunion at a bed-and-breakfast offers a similar benefit.
"At a bed-and-breakfast, we have full use of the entire house," she said.
Whatever the appeal, Carol Nemeth, owner of Spencer Silver, said she's noticed an increase in reunions booked at the inn.
"Five years ago I had maybe one family reunion each summer, and now I have about 10," she said.
Larger families that need more room are turning to parks and other outdoor facilities. Susan Strawbridge of Forest Hill said that as her family of 11 children outgrew their grandmother's rowhouse in Baltimore, they moved the family reunion of more than 80 people to various parks in the county. They have become resident experts on local hot spots. Their current favorite spot is the Eden Mill Nature Center.
"I have 27 first cousins and the second cousins are having babies, plus my husband has reunions each year," Strawbridge said. "We've tested a lot of local spots."
Meanwhile, as the popularity of reunions grows and the events evolve, Vargus said she's noticed some trends developing.
First, many reunions are more than an afternoon picnic, she said, in some cases extending to two-, three-, or four-day events.
Some families are changing the location each year.
"During my youth, the family lived near each other," Vargus said. "Now family members spread out all over the place, so the reunion destination changes according to whoever is hosting the event."
Because one of the primary values of a reunion is the chance to connect more deeply with family history, some families undertake "heritage tours," said Allison Stacy, editor of the Cincinnati-based Family Tree Magazine.
A heritage tour is a trip that takes a family to its ancestral homeland.
"Heritage tours are a growing trend because people want to walk in their ancestors' footsteps," she said. "And as baby boomers retire, they become more interested in their roots."
Turning to new technology to unlock the secrets of their family history, many people are undergoing DNA testing, Vargus said.
"People want to know what country they came from and about their ancestral heritage, and DNA testing is quicker than genealogy research," Vargus said.
The test, which costs from $100 to $300 for basic testing and up to $1,000 for a full screening, involves rubbing a cotton swab on the inside of one's cheek and having it sent for evaluation.