Mincemeat Pies, Christmas Crackers, and the Evolutionary Significance of Extended Family

For Homo Sapiens like you and me, family extends beyond kin lines. In fact, while our tendency to create psychological ingroups sometimes has adverse consequences (no doubt), the extraordinary success of our kind owes a great debt to our tendency to include non-kin as family.

Extended family members – including in-laws – comprise a core part of someone’s support system. As folks like David Buss (2003) have said before, mate choice includes more than choice of a mate – choosing a marriage partner is inextricably linked to choosing extended family members who can help support you and who can ultimately (if things go right) provide significant benefits to you, your offspring, and, ultimately, the offspring of your offspring – and beyond. Without question, I have been extremely fortunate in the in-law lottery – and, without question, my kids could not be luckier.

In-laws are more than just mother-in-law (Gill) and father-in-law (Bob). My wife Kathy’s sister Kelly and her nuclear family are fantastic – and having them in our life is an unequivocal plus – my daughter Megan and son Andrew undoubtedly would agree with this.

But we lost a member of our family today – and I’m deeply saddened. We all are. Kathy’s grandmother (and Megan and Andrew’s great-grandmother) – Gran – passed away today. As Keller and Nesse (2006) pointed out, the death of a family member leads people to seek out other family members to stay connected – perhaps to underscore the family support mechanism that still exists. In this family, writing is a way to stay connected – Megan just wrote a beautiful list of things she remembers from Gran – and Andrew drew a very sweet picture. Like most people I know, I’m not very good at dealing with death, so I guess writing a blog is my way of dealing.

Gran was a genuinely amazing person, in a very understated way, and we were so lucky to have her – and so lucky that she lived for so long. My family didn’t do the Christmas thing growing up, but Kathy’s family did – (a pretty secular version, I must add). So I get to be part of this great family tradition. Gran was from Wales – and she lived in Liverpool for a time before coming to the US (on the Queen Elizabeth I, no less). She really had a wonderful British way about her – and Christmas with Kathy’s family is filled with this influence.

Before Christmas dinner, we do the “Christmas Crackers” thing – if you haven’t ever done this, you really should. It’s pretty ridiculous. The “crackers” are sort of special packages that get opened at the start of Christmas dinner. When opened concurrently, they all make a nice “crack” (thanks to a very small amount of some sort of explosive). Included in the crackers are these totally cheesy jokes and prizes (e.g., a fake nail that looks like it went through your finger or small rings that you try to take apart (even though it’s impossible to take them apart – as far as I can ever tell)). And there’s this weird paper hat as well. Every hat comes in a different color – and the rule is you HAVE to wear it. At least through dinner – and preferably longer.

Well it turned out each year that Gran, my brother-in-law Marshall (also not of the “Christmas” background), Gill, and I were the Christmas Cracker champs – we’d wear these things up until midnight some years.

And there were the minced meat pies that we’d eat on Christmas Eve each year. Gran absolutely insisted that we eat these – and my mother-in-law Gill, a dutiful daughter, always complied. Each Christmas Eve, she’d pull the pies out of the oven at 9pm – like clockwork. Gran, Marshall, and I would, along with Gill, eat these “yummy” pies without fail (with sherry, a true British tradition). No one else dares!

Gran was an understated person – nothing fancy. Simple, smart, and funny – right up to the end. She could always hear everything – and she pretty much always had a comment. Around Christmas, there was always lots of “isn’t that lovely,” evenly peppered with dry comments such as “well that wouldn’t make much sense, now would it?”

Last year, we hosted Gran’s 95th birthday party – and it was great. My favorite moment was when she opened an expensive bottle of liquor that my uncle had bought for her. “Well once you open it, you have to let me try some,” Uncle Saul said jokingly. “Absolutely not!” retorted Gran, in the driest tone possible. No one doubted her for a second!

Christmas without Gran doesn’t seem possible, to be honest. But we’ll make do. And we’ll keep the traditions – silly as they are – alive and well, in her honor. We’ve been so fortunate to have her in our lives for so long. From an evolutionary perspective, having such a special family member through marriage is nothing short of a blessing.


Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire. New York: Basic Books.

Keller, M. C., & Nesse, R. (2006). The evolutionary significance of depressive symptoms: Different adverse situations lead to different depressive symptom patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 316-330.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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One Response to Mincemeat Pies, Christmas Crackers, and the Evolutionary Significance of Extended Family

  1. Rose Chang Rose Chang says:

    I am so sorry to hear of your loss – and right before the most important occasion of gathering with Gran, no doubt. My father used to give us crackers and I remember the startle every time I opened them, even though I knew what was coming. What a great Christmas tradition! I hope you all keep these this year too – maybe even the mincemeat?

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