Thanksgiving is here, and that can only mean one thing: It’s time for the Family Reunion.
And, while I can’t speak for other families, I know that our gatherings are not for the halt and the shy. You come prepared to feast robustly, drink valiantly, and weather a storm of caustic jest.
I don’t know why my family excels at wisecrack, but their wit is one that savors the put-down and revels in verbal jousting. It begins the minute you arrive at the event. Grab a drink, head for the shrimp cocktail, and gird your loins. Everyone’s a target.
Lost some scalp hair but gained more ear hair over the year? You’ll get a query: “Hey… is it migration season again?”
Put on a few pounds? Observation: “I see you got a new chin collar.”
Questionable choice of apparel? Request: “I’m sorry, Uncle, could you repeat what you said…your shirt’s a little loud.”
That’s the mild stuff over the hors d’oeuvres. The high humor comes at dinner and draws on insightful analyses of how present setbacks link to lifelong shortcomings.
A shared tradition
We’re a large brood, mostly males, which may account for much of the verbal jock snapping. But often the wives join in like pros and sometimes come away with the best lines of the evening. We must appeal to an ironic streak in potential mates. Could this be evolutionary?
This snark hunt has continued unabated from our childhood into our middle age and beyond. All come steeled for critique, knowing that it earns them the coveted pleasure of dishing it all out right back. And when one scores a solid hit over another, the quarry quickly offers congratulations and respect, similar to the honor code among WWI flying aces.
This never goes outside the family, and I assure you, dear reader, that, should you join any of us for dinner, you would be treated with every kindness and warm welcome. Apart, we’re nothing but polite and compassionate citizens.
But together, we make merry by sharpening our barbs on each other’s imperfections and, in the process, provide lots of laughter. It’s a dynamic that exists only through a clan synergy that took root a long time ago.
Meanwhile, the new generations are picking up the torch. My young adult nephews and nieces have a droll bite that I would have envied at their ages.
Peace through ridicule
Perhaps the “humor” serves to keep things on a safe, neutral footing. If we venture off into talk about arts, current events, personal problems or—egads!—politics the mood can turn dull or, worse, explosive.
The last category is a declaration of war. We’ve got left, right, center, and moon-howlers of both fringes among the ranks. So, rather than open up a hostile front, it’s better to stay within the bounds of congenial calumny.
There is, of course, real shared enjoyment in happy family events. Travels, new jobs, marriages, births—no one could ask for better or more sincere family good wishes than we shower on each other.
But we seem renewed by the ragging. Perhaps it’s a safety valve that keeps us from acting out badly in the real world.
Tolstoy famously observed that all happy families are alike, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
But what about a family that makes itself happy by being offensive? Might it have saved Anna Karenina?