Massachusetts-based Irish genealogist and author Marjorie Harshaw Robie says Thanksgiving and year-end holidays are the perfect time to capture stories from relatives and ensure that accurate family histories are recorded. 

Marjorie Harshaw Robie knows something about the importance of family history: she's written two successful books about her 19th-century Irish ancestors - including farmers who lived through the potato blight and the Irish famine - based on an extraordinary set of personal journals kept by her ancestors.

But Robie says meticulous journaling isn't necessary to amass a great deal of family lore.  One or two motivated family members can capture generations' worth of stories that keep family memories alive, and help younger generations understand the impact of history on everyday people.

Here are some top practical tips for making the most of family holiday discussions:

Encourage family members to bring meaningful items to dinner

As RSVPs come in, ask attendees to bring family trees they're working on, pictures of relatives from generations back, and interesting items like military medals, family bibles, or other ephemera that will spark conversations about past relatives.

Talk to older family members first

They'll have the stories most likely to be lost.  As people age, stories of their childhoods can often be more richly detailed than recent events.

Encourage stories about daily life

Robie says most people think they have only one or two interesting stories about themselves but often it's the mundane details that hold the most interest for younger family members. 

"When did you get your first TV?"  "What was your favorite childhood movie?" or "Who were your friends as a kid?" are all easily relatable stories that ignite young minds about life and the way it was lived by previous generations.

Top tip….Record the conversation

Most of all, Robie says to record what's being said.  Whether on paper, on video or on smartphone recordings, be sure to capture as many dinner and post-dinner discussions as possible.

* Ipswich-based Marjorie Harshaw Robie is the author of  Dueling Dragons: The Struggle for Ireland 1849 - 1875 (2018) and its predecessor Dwelling Place of Dragons: An Irish Story (2006). She can talk about collecting and preserving family stories, and her own incredible search for missing family diaries that became the basis of her writings.

** Originally published in 2018, updated in Nov 2023.