The Holidays Can Help Your Family Research

Tracing Your Roots: Family gatherings are genealogical gold mines. Here’s how to make the most of them.

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Keep It in Good Taste

Recipes passed down through the generations are often used for family holiday dinners. One way to incorporate these recipes into your family research is to ask relatives to write down a special family recipe and include information about the person who gave them the recipe. They may have memories of cooking that particular dish with a parent or grandparent. From there you can use a number of photo-book websites to create a family cookbook, using the recipes as well as photographs of those who created the recipes.

Remember to Have Fun

There are also a number of activities you can do with children who are interested in working on a family-history project. Booklets such as My Time Machine (pdf) give children the opportunity to use photos, drawings and charts to learn more about their family history. This particular booklet contains a map for children to mark where different family members lived, as well as a list of interview questions they can ask their parents, grandparents and other relatives.

Older children may want to help create a photo book or design a family website using various family photographs and documents. PBS created a webpage called Embracing Black History, which provides parents with a variety of ideas on how to cultivate a child’s interest in African-American history and genealogy.

Another fun activity is to print out the 1940 U.S. Federal Census, listing one member of your family who will be attending your holiday event. He or she can reminisce about neighbors and friends where they grew up, and this will bring forth more stories.

Here’s to Your Health

One of the most important reasons to discuss your family history over the holidays is to learn more about the health of your ancestors and living family members. In 2004 the U.S. surgeon general declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day, in order to encourage people to talk about diseases and medical conditions that may run in the family.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has available on its website a tool called My Family Health Portrait, which enables users to type and print out health-data forms containing medical information about themselves and other family members. These health histories not only help doctors identify those at higher risk for particular diseases and conditions but will also give people the knowledge needed to take preventive measures to lower their chances of developing certain health issues.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.