The Holidays Can Help Your Family Research

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Family holiday gatherings provide a wonderful opportunity to learn more about one’s roots. These get-togethers can prove to be a valuable resource for furthering your genealogical research, if you’re prepared to make the most of them. Below are a few ideas to help you get ready.

Picture This

As the older generations of a family pass on, family genealogists often find that they don’t have any means of identifying certain relatives in old photographs. Be sure to bring these “mystery” photos to your next family event. One of your relatives may be able to help you finally identify these individuals.


Ask other relatives to bring old family photos or home movies. By looking at these with family and friends, you can learn a lot about your family history as people reminisce about the individuals or events captured on film. It may also provide you with an opportunity to view a photograph of a particular ancestor for the first time.

You Just Have to Ask

Another way to obtain family-history information is by interviewing kin. There are a number of compact, inexpensive digital voice recorders available. If a family member feels uncomfortable about being recorded, be sure to have a notebook available for taking notes.

In addition to talking to the oldest members of your family, keep in mind that the younger generations can also provide a wealth of information. You may have a cousin who had the opportunity to spend more time with one of your grandparents than you did, and he or she may be able to tell you things about your grandparent of which you were unaware.

Think of questions to pose that require more than just a simple yes-or-no answer. Ask older family members about holiday traditions they participated in as children with their families, as well as pastimes they enjoyed as children and young adults. Include questions about how they met their spouse or spouses, where they were married and where they lived during their marriage. Also think about historical events that took place locally as well as nationally during their lifetimes, and ask what they remember about these events.


Before your family gathering, fill out a family group sheet and ancestry chart, both of which are available for free at websites such as American Ancestors. Bring these documents with you and show them to family members as you interview them. They may be able to help you fill in the names and birth, marriage and death dates for certain family members.

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.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, a researchers from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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