More than the decorations on the annual Fraser fir tree or the wrapped gifts below it, Ann Balderston Glynn’s fondest Christmas memory is of her mother’s cream pies. She remembers how her mom would crush the graham crackers for the crust, pour hot butter to set it, and then stand over the stove stirring and stirring until the pudding consistency was just right.
“That pie represented home and love and family,” Ann says. As the years passed, she realized she wanted more than the handed-down recipe card from her mother. She wanted the stories that went along with it. So one December, 17 years ago, she returned to her childhood home in upstate New York, gathered her parents in the kitchen amid the ingredients for cream pie, and hit the record button on a video camera as her mother went to work. Ann’s mother spoke about learning the recipe from her mother on their farm in the 1930s while Ann’s father reminisced about a love of cooking that led to his career as a chef. (See also “Story Basics.”)
On that raw, unedited tape, Christmas pie became the centerpiece of a permanent family record.
Ann, 53, a married mother of two, is among a group especially eager to create—and celebrate—family history and turn it into a legacy, baby boomers. “That generation is at an age where they want to pass on family history to the next generation,” says John Paolo Canton of Ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history resource. “It gives them a sense of being, a sense of belonging. They’re finding out family stories no one knew. It’s like a treasure hunt.”
According to a Harris Interactive poll conducted last year, four in five Americans have an interest in learning about their family history. And if there’s an ideal time to bring a family tree to life, it’s during the holidays, the traditional and sometimes only occasions, when multiple generations gather. Reminiscing about the good old days comes naturally.
Peppering the family matriarch or patriarch with questions at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table is a magical moment. That’s when it hits you that your relatives are flesh-and-blood time capsules. “You don’t realize how many questions you have until you don’t have the opportunity to ask them anymore,” says Michelle Ercanbrack, a family historian with Ancestry.com. The holidays are a call to action, a time to “open the door for those beautiful conversations. If that opportunity is lost, think of the cultural heritage your children and grandchildren are being denied.”
Think about it: These conversations fill holes in understanding who you are. Scott Tims of Dallas, Texas, describes the impact of stories told by family members around the holiday table. “My grandmother graduated high school in 1933, one of the very worst years of the Great Depression,” he says. She would describe trains running through town loaded with good, honest men, shabbily dressed, looking for work.
Those stories of hard times resonated when Scott found himself dealing with his own challenges in our current recession. “There were times I really felt sorry for myself and then I thought back to the stories my grandmother and father told me about their growing up and what they had and what they didn’t. It puts things into perspective.”