5 ways to use the holiday season to gather and share family stories

All photos by Ted Anthony.

So many Pittsburghers have a deep connection to their family history. But given the fast pace of our lives these days, it’s easy for family stories to get forgotten or beloved recipes to get lost over time.

This year, use holiday gatherings to purposefully capture family stories, photos and recipes. We’ve gathered a few easy but impactful tools that you can use this year as you gather with relatives for the holidays.

photo by Ted Anthony

Ask holiday guests to bring a few family photos and old letters that everyone can capture with their smartphones. Reassure relatives that they will be able to take these precious items home with them and they won’t be run through a scanner. Also, explain that candid photos are just as good (or even better than) posed photos. As you look through the images, ask relatives not just about the people but also about things in the background — cars the family owned, homes where they lived, pets they loved long ago.

Tip: Have a magnifying glass available and a pad and pen to take notes as old photos and letters spark memories that relatives share out loud.

photo by ted anthony

Create a quiet space for older relatives to speak. If you’re having a large holiday gathering, invite older family members to come a bit early so you can take them aside and talk before the house gets crowded. Have them sit at the kitchen table as you’re preparing food and begin an informal conversation about the past.

If gathering early isn’t possible, plan to talk with older relatives in a space that won’t be too disruptive or noisy. It can also help to ask older relatives to tell stories about other people, in case they feel a bit awkward talking directly about themselves.

Tip: Be sure to use a voice recorder, so you can capture the sound of an older relative’s voice for future generations to hear.

Ask anyone bringing a dish this year to write out the recipe — and include its history. Along with the recipe itself, ask them to add some notes about which relatives made this dish originally and include any stories that cross their mind about past holiday gatherings where it was served. If they have an old family recipe in the handwriting of an older relative, even better.

Tip: Ask each person making a dish to bring copies of their recipe for everyone to take home, or if there is a printer at the home where you’ll be gathering, ask them to bring just one and make copies when they arrive.

Photo by Ted Anthony.

Put a question at each person’s place-setting this year. Holiday dinner conversation often includes people telling family stories. You can ensure that happens this year by printing out a question for each dinner guest – easy, open-ended prompts like “What was your favorite thing about the holidays when you were a child?” or “What is one holiday gift you’ll never forget receiving from a family member?”

Tip: Make sure that each relative, even the more reserved ones, gets a chance to shine and share. Keep a voice recorder handy for these moments, too.

Photo by Ted Anthony.

If a holiday gathering is at the home of older relatives, ask them in advance to pull out a few objects or everyday items they’ve had since they raised their kids. Let them know: These don’t need to be valuable or fancy things. Even an old measuring cup for laundry detergent, an old-style coffee pot, an ice-cream scoop or a mixer used to make batter and dough for long-ago Christmas treats can have a memorable story behind it.

They may be surprised — and glad — that younger generations want to hear the stories behind these items. And if the extended family is there, the memories about the object may come from more than one person.

Tip: Be prepared to explain why a random item might have sentimental value and contain family stories. Sometimes it’s hard for people to believe that their everyday things can contain lots of possible stories to tell.