10 Family History Conversation Starters for the Holidays (or Whenever)

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium
Family holiday meal.
The holidays provide an excellent opportunity for sharing food and family stories.

Holiday gatherings often serve up an abundance of delectable desserts, but do you sometimes wish your family conversations were a little less stale? You wish Uncle Merle would dish out stories about Grandpa instead of his latest adventures with Medicare Part D. You hope your cousins’ chatter will someday get around to childhood memories.

Don’t despair: With a bit of preparation and some creative flair, you can transform tepid table talk into appetizing ancestral anecdotes and scrumptious personal stories. Here, we offer techniques for infusing dull discussions with flavorful family history, followed by recipes for 10 great conversation starters to serve at your next holiday gathering.

Tips for Effective Family History Sharing

Serve a starter before the main course.

Conversation starters are like appetizers: they whet the palate for what’s to follow. Lead with an interesting question anyone would want to answer. Example: “What’s your favorite dish on the table?” Then follow up with more specific questions. “Why do you like it so much?” “Whose recipe is it?” This is the conversational main dish, so to speak: the meaning behind the memories associated with a family recipe.

Plate your questions individually or serve them up family style.

Family stories make lively dinner conversation, but it isn’t easy to take notes while holding a fork. Also, in a large group, responses may not be as personal, and conversation is easily derailed. Do you want every sibling’s memories of Hanukkahs past, or would you rather focus on your sister’s tender recollection of the very last time Dad lit the menorah? Consider chatting with just one or two relatives over pie, too.

It’s all about presentation.

Soften your Q&A session with some creative presentation. Pass around a bowl of homemade fortune cookies with heritage questions inside, or send around a hat with those questions on slips of paper. Ask everyone to summarize his or her year on video for the cousin stationed in Afghanistan. Record a Skype conversation with long-distance grandchildren, asking simple, fun questions about favorite gifts and holiday-break activities.

Don’t spoon-feed unless you have to.

Try not to ask leading or “yes” or “no” questions. Occasionally you’ll have to draw information out of people, though. If your question about favorite gifts doesn’t bring up Uncle Bill’s BB gun, you might try to stir up memories: “I’ve heard that Uncle Bill got a BB gun from grandpa one year….” If you’re tracking a specific rumor, however, you may need to spoon-feed your audience: “Did Grandma really shoot Grandpa in the foot with Bill’s BB gun?”

Allow for different tastes.

Some take their turkey white and dry, others dark and drenched with gravy. Your brother joyfully recalls holiday singalongs, but your sister hated them. Older cousins knew a fun-loving grandma; younger ones, a grieving widow. Listen respectfully to different viewpoints, and cut in gracefully if the second glass of wine makes tongues a little freer than you’d hoped.

Be sensitive about dishes nobody likes.

Some family stories are hard pills to swallow: they can be embarrassing, divisive or painful. Steer the conversation to positive (or at least meaningful and poignant) memories if you need to—the holidays shouldn’t feel like group therapy. Save questions about dad’s third failed marriage for another setting.

Read: To Write or Not to Write: Respecting Privacy in Family-History Storytelling

Don’t forget dessert.

End your inquiry with a topic that will sit sweetly on everyone’s emotional palate: Ask about the best gift they ever got or gave, or their funniest memory of your penny-pinching grandpa, bless his long-gone soul. If you’ve recorded the conversation, promise to share it (and keep your promise). There’s nothing like listening to other people’s stories to make someone more anxious to share her own the next time around.

10 Conversation Starters for Family History Gatherings

1. How did the family celebrate Thanksgiving when you were young?

Ask this question about any holiday. It’s a great opener for a group and doesn’t require a formal lead-in. Everyone can contribute something unique (and probably not controversial). Answers will inform your follow-up questions, as you sense the impact of religion, ethnic traditions, long-distance travel, family conflicts, poverty or other factors on the family. This catch-all question may take you clear through the meal, as loved ones describe pre-holiday baking sessions, football on Thanksgiving, pictures with Santa or skiing holidays during winter breaks.

2. What’s your earliest holiday memory?

Turn this one into a contest for the youngest memory shared (prize: candy pacifier?). It doesn’t have to be a complete thought. Maybe it’s just an image of a crooked, spindly artificial tree, or the warmth of hot chocolate after sledding. An older family member may flesh out a younger one’s hazy recollection, but don’t feel the need to verify facts. You might also show a photo or home movie from a past family Christmas—ask relatives to identify people, describe the setting and share any memories that come to mind.

3. What’s your favorite holiday food?

Questions about food taste good to everyone, as long as you don’t get personal about Grandma’s “green bean special.” Go beyond a list of palate pleasers—find out the memories behind winning recipes. Which are traditionally served at Thanksgiving or New Year’s, and why? Who cooks? Have recipes ever gone wrong? Raw turkey and rock-hard rolls are ingredients for a disastrous dinner but a great story.

4. When was the first time you spent the holidays away from home?

This question works well one-on-one or in a small group. Answers often are linked to life events such as marriage, college or military service, but you may stumble into stories about elopement, running away, travel and volunteer work. Follow-up questions should be (as always) thoughtful but not nosy. Why were you there? How did you spend the actual holiday? How did your family feel about you not coming home? How did you feel?

5. Tell me about someone you miss during the holidays.

This question can prompt tears, hard memories or long-winded tributes—but is also a fitting way to keep sweet memories alive. Consider proposing a toast to loved ones lost. Ask everyone to raise their glasses and say who they miss this year. It’s classy, meaningful and brief—and a good fact-finding opportunity. You’ll learn who’s remembered fondly by whom. Follow up by asking everyone to share a memory of one person, or ask Uncle Bob privately about the older brother he honored in the toast.

6. Was there ever a lean gift-giving year?

Stories from the Great Depression and other penny-pinching days are more meaningful to younger generations now that they’ve witnessed a recession. Ask how relatives celebrated when times were tough and what kinds of gifts were exchanged. What did they go without? What luxuries did they long for? This is a good opportunity to ask what a relative’s parents did for work, both in and out of the home. Did they raise their own food? Put up produce? Rebuild their own cars? Remember to keep your responses free of judgment.

7. How did your family celebrate the New Year when you were young?

This is another great group question to which anyone can contribute an answer. You might be intrigued to discover that your older sister remembers your parents hosting big parties, if you recall only later, quieter celebrations. If your relatives need a little extra prompting, ask about early memories of staying up past midnight, and what happened at midnight (banging pots and pans? a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”?). Don’t forget to include New Year’s Eve parties and the next day’s traditions.

8. How important do you think the religious aspects of the holidays were to Mom?

(Sub in Grandma, Great-uncle Jim or whomever.) This is better asked in small groups or one-on-one, especially if religion is a touchy topic in your clan. You’re looking to gather opinions, not facts, because you’re not actually asking Mom or Grandpa. This question is worth asking your own siblings, who may have observed parents at different phases of belief. Remember that someone’s own beliefs may color both his memories and his interpretation of his memories. Ask (if you don’t know) where the family attended worship services, who participated in what religious traditions and how other family members reacted.

9. What ethnic traditions do you remember being part of the holidays?

As long as ethnicity isn’t a sensitive topic in your family, this is another great group question. Build on what you already know: “Does anyone remember Nonna talking about their Christmas Eve traditions, when they put out shoes?” Food and religion often are part of ethnic traditions, but so are specific celebrations like the coming of the Magi or Boxing Day. Ask in-laws and non-relatives this question, too. They may have very different traditions to share.

10. What’s the best gift you ever Received (or gave)?

What’s a gift someone else got that you coveted? This is a feel-good group question you can dish up as dessert for your conversational feast. Sweet memories may include beloved first bikes, trendy toys or heirloom jewelry. Ask your relatives how gift giving has changed over the years, and about gifting traditions. (It is tempting to ask about worst gifts. Don’t—this question creates a minefield for hurt feelings. Someone will inevitably mention the annual gift of socks and underwear from the aunt sitting next to him.)

polaroid perservation, cropping polaroids
Bringing along old family photos is a great way to help memories and stories re-surface.

Though these questions focus on the holidays, loved ones will likely broaden their answers. Allow time to savor whatever memories come to mind. Then refresh the conversation from time to time, just as a host would refill an empty basket of rolls. Lead a discussion gradually from food to ethnic traditions to religious ones, or from early holiday memories to loved ones long gone.

Most of all, enjoy the conversational comfort food. Family stories are filling and familiar, with only the occasional creamed-spinach surprise you won’t linger over. And if Uncle Merle starts talking with his mouth full, you won’t even care—because he’s finally telling you all about the grandfather you never knew.

A version of this article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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