Interviewing Family Members for the Holidays

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips for asking family history questions of relatives gathered for the holidays. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

What memories stand out for you during the holidays? When I was growing up, Christmas wasn’t Christmas unless the model train was chugging away on an endless loop beneath the fake green plastic needles of the Christmas tree. We never had a “real” tree, but to be honest I was more concerned that we never had a flocked tree since those seemed really cool.

My dad had built a platform for the tree and the train tracks, miniature buildings, and painted Styrofoam mountain tunnel so that the model train could make its way in an endless loop with fake smoke billowing from its smokestack. We’d watch that train go around and around every night as the days slowly passed toward Christmas day. Christmas wasn’t complete unless that train was making its rounds. As a child I assumed we had a model train around our Christmas tree because my dad and my grandpa worked for the railroad. It wasn’t until later I realized that other people also shared that tradition.

What were the holidays like in your family? Those types of memories are ephemeral because no one thinks to write them down. Everyone knows your family’s traditions, so why document them?  Once the family members that shared that memory are gone, the traditions or the reason behind the traditions can be gone as well.

Now’s the time. Interview your family, young and old, and document your own memories. Make this the year that you capture those annual traditions.

Illustration: “Happy Christmas” by Johansen Viggo, 1891
Illustration: “Happy Christmas” by Johansen Viggo, 1891. Source: Den Hirschsprungske Samling; Wikimedia Commons.

Time to Ask Questions

You already know that the holidays are a great time to interview family members and ask questions about photos and ancestors, and to have them recall stories. You know that one of the first tasks in family history research is to talk to the older generation. And you know that interviewing should include specific, open-ended questions that can help get the conversation started. But what are some holiday discussion starters that can make for interesting family history stories?

Take some time while you are gathered with family to ask a few questions, whether you start off the holiday meal with everyone answering a question, or you have people choose from a jar of questions you’ve prepared on paper. Use that time to add to your family history by getting information from your family.

Not getting together with family this year? That’s ok, you can still “interview” family members even if you aren’t going to see them in person. Are you on Facebook? Take some questions you want answered and post them as a private message to family members on Facebook. If your family isn’t on social media, consider sending out a group email. You could even involve the younger generation by sending out a group text via your cell phone.

Don’t forget that while it’s great to hear about the “good old days,” the memories of the younger generation of the family are equally important. Just imagine how great it would be for that now 10-year-old cousin to be reintroduced to their memories when they are 18 years old – or even later when they have their own children.

To help get you started, consider some of the following holiday-oriented questions:

Holiday Season and Winter

  • What was the winter weather like where you grew up? Did it snow?
  • What traditions did you have around New Year’s Day? Did you eat any special food? Did everyone stay up late (including the kids)? Did you watch the “ball drop”?
  • What do you miss about the holidays now that you are older?

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day

  • What’s the best present you ever received?
  • What are your memories of Christmas when you were a child?
  • What Christmas traditions did you grow up with?
  • What did your house look like during the holidays? (Christmas tree, outside decorations, etc.)
  • Did you go anywhere for Christmas?
  • Did you celebrate Christmas Eve? If so, what did you do?
  • Did you write or receive a letter from Santa?
  • What was your favorite Christmas movie growing up?
  • Did you ever go on a vacation or travel for Christmas?

Christmas Tree

  • When did you decorate the Christmas tree? Weeks ahead or the day before? Was it a real tree or was it artificial? If it was artificial, was it green or some other color?
  • Do you have any family ornaments that have been passed down? If so, what stories accompany those ornaments?

Christmas Food

  • What foods did you eat at Christmas? Did you have anything that was only served during the holidays?
  • When your family gathered for a holiday meal, how many generations were there?
  • Did your family use special dishes for holiday celebrations?

Make Your List of Questions

I don’t know about you, but as I write these interview questions, memories of holidays past, family members long since gone, and traditions are flooding my memory. Which leads to my last suggestion: don’t forget that you should also be interviewing yourself. Write these questions down and start telling the story of your life. Your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be glad you did.

Happy Holidays!

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