As I plan for my extended family’s first Thanksgiving holiday together since my older sister passed away six years ago and explore the grab bag of emotions it’s bringing up for me, I wonder about you. What emotions are the various upcoming holidays generating for you? And, how are you preparing for this season of memory-making and deep reminiscing?

Since we’ve all been living through the same global pandemic, I imagine your reminiscing has been a lot like mine for the past couple of years – limited to the solitary and the abstract. I’ve been doing quiet, remembering, internal processing, and life story writing. In order to keep myself and others safe from Covid, I haven’t participated in the kind of group reminiscing that occurs when long-time friends and family gather. 

Now that we all feel safer to gather, I’m looking forward to being with my little family. A big question that comes up for me as I prepare is: How can I make sure our time together is well-spent and meaningful?

Can you relate?

Ideas for making the most of togetherness this holiday season.

First, a word about reminiscing itself. If you’re here, you probably know how passionate I am about the gratifying, enriching, and even healing powers of life story writing — of putting our stories on the page. While the writing part of life story writing has its own benefits, the real power lies primarily in the reminiscing. The remembering. 

Writing our stories brings them back to life. It reminds us what has given our lives meaning, and it shows us how far we’ve come. When we reminisce on the page, the readers we share our stories with also profit. Our readers get to know us more deeply through our stories, which can be important for familial connections and understanding. There’s also a good chance our readers will learn something about history and values through our written stories. 

How does all of this relate to the upcoming holidays?

When we gather for celebrations and holidays, it’s an opportunity to bring our reminiscing into the communal sphere. When we tell stories and remember together, in real-time, we not only reap the benefits of reminiscing; we generate closeness and create new holiday memories. 

Families that reminisce together continue to build memories.

My mother died the year prior to my sister’s passing. I’m now the family matriarch, the eldest elder. I feel a great responsibility to roast a decent turkey! More importantly, I feel a great responsibility to ensure that my daughter, my sister’s son, and my sister’s precious grandchildren – who never got to meet her – hear the high points of our family’s history. (They may one day read in my stories about some of the low points too, but the holidays are a time for leaning into the positives.)

In that spirit, I offer three ideas for getting the most out of your holiday reminiscing opportunities:

  • Too often, when people die, their recipes die with them. Other unforeseen events (like global pandemics) can separate us from the foods we traditionally eat during the holidays. If you’re cooking from family recipes, make copies of the recipes for your guests to take with them. Don’t worry about giving away your secrets — no one can make it like you make it! You may even include a brief written story with each recipe.
  • Families tend to repeat the same stories over and over when they gather. There’s value, and often humor, in repeating the greatest hits, but try getting off the beaten path this year by asking the younger generations what they want to know. Pulling up new stories will be as fun for you as it is for them. Additionally, when you make youngsters active participants in reminiscing, they’re more likely to take interest and ownership in the family stories. 
  • Many (most?) families include elders experiencing some degree of cognitive decline. Don’t shut these loved ones out of the conversation just because they tend to repeat the same stories or seem to confuse fact with fantasy. Reminiscing has been proven to increase the quality of life and happiness for people in cognitive decline. These are the people who carried the family stories for us for decades. Let’s do what we can to help them continue benefiting from their own stories.

Please reach out if you have any holiday reminiscing successes — I would love to read them!