You’ve decorated the house. You’ve made the food and set the table. It’s been a whirlwind of preparation but the big day has finally arrived. Whether your family is gathering in person or online, use this beautiful time to learn the stories about your heritage. Set aside some intentional time to visit with the oldest people in your family. It is more important to them — and you — than you might realize.
One way to get started is to talk about holiday traditions.
Many families have traditions related to the holidays which they observe. These traditions could be anything such as certain decorations, a recipe, or an activity. Unfortunately, not all families know how their traditions began.
After dinner or some time when things have quieted down a bit, find a place where you and your relative can visit. Some tea and cookies might be appropriate. Make sure everyone is comfortable and relaxed. Don’t rush! Give them your undivided attention. If your relative senses you are already thinking about your next activity, or that you are distracted by your phone, they might not feel like your interest in them or their story is sincere.
Here’s one to get you started. Talk about a family tradition you currently observe, then ask:
Was this tradition observed when you were a child?
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Some traditions stay the same for generations. Others change for a variety of reasons. For example, when I was a child, my family gathered at the home of my grandparents. After they passed, the family gathered at the home of my parents. The family still gathered, just at a different location.
Be ready for anything…or nothing. You might get a story like the time Uncle Billy tossed the dinner rolls across the room. The story could be about the year the gathering didn’t happen because of a recent death or illness. Or, you might not get a story at all. Sometimes, it can be hard to recall a specific event.
Some people find it difficult to get started talking about their past. Be patient and gentle with your questions. Slow down. Photos often help jog a memory or two. If you have that special heirloom, hand it to your relative. Watch their reactions and body language. Follow up with sensitive questions and sincere interest.
You just never know where one of these chats will end up. It might be a one-and-done kind of thing, or you might begin talking about additional traditions and heirlooms. You might go off on some other topic that has nothing at all to do with the holidays, and that’s okay. Just go where the conversation leads. Regardless of what you talk about, both you and your relative have given and received precious gifts. You have learned something about your heritage that you didn’t know before. Your relative has been given your attention and interest. As the “matriarch” of my family, I promise you that the feeling that comes from knowing a younger family member cares about a story I have to tell is a most precious gift, indeed.