Around this time of year, Swedes like to throw little brief daytime parties with mulled wine and ginger bread cookies. Usually they’re on weekends, of course. In my mother’s family there’s been a tradition for decades of organising mulled-wine parties for the descendants of my maternal grandfather’s parents.
This year my mom sent out invitations for the family mulled-wine party to take place at two o’clock on a Wednesday. This made little sense to me at first, since it would mean that hardly anyone with a job or kids would come. But then I thought about it and realised that, yes, this is of course completely in line with how a sense of family is constructed.
A family (Sw. släkt) is a temporary thing. (Unless you’re keeping track of an aristocratic patrilineage, a House of this or that.) In practice, it’s almost impossible to keep any sense of genealogical cohesion for more than three generations. These time-hallowed mulled-wine parties have been gatherings of generation 2 (one surviving member) and generation 3 (almost all of whom are now retired and free to party at 2 o’clock on a Wednesday) — but myself and the other members of generation 4 aren’t very interested or interesting to generation 3. In fact, while generation 3 are first cousins and played together all the time when they were kids, me and my second cousins in generation 4 have hardly ever met and have no strong bonds, not to mention the kids in generation 5 who have never heard of each other unless they’re on the same branch of the family tree.
What will happen in the next few decades is of course that generation 3 will go the way of their forebears and us members of generation 4 will no longer think of each other as family. Maybe we will still have family mulled-wine parties, but they won’t use the couple in generation 1 as a reference point. Instead the various branch-forming couples in generation 2 will form the anchors of independent families, which will live as social constructs for a few decades and then evaporate too, giving rise to new families. Genealogical continuity is an illusion.