It's easy to forget what's important when life is overrun with daily stress. It's even easier when the world is changing so rapidly, as constantly evolving technology reforms how we both perform our daily tasks and celebrate special occasions. So it becomes critical to take a step back, and remember the past and how those who came before us dealt with life's struggles and joys.
Your heritage is something that's passed down to you. It could be something concrete, like property or significant items and objects. But often, when people speak of heritage, they're referring to more abstract things, like traditions, rituals, and even traits and beliefs. But every form of heritage has significance, and people who cherish their ancestors and family history want to protect it, keeping it alive in the present and for future generations.
Celebrating family heritage allows us to memorialize these special histories. We can remember in a special way where we came from and how we got where we are. For many, celebrating heritage is a way of understanding one's own identity more deeply. If your ancestors were immigrants, you can celebrate the culture they came from, as well as reflect on why and how they left their original country. Or, if your ancestors have a long-standing tradition where you live, you can learn more about how the place has changed throughout that history.
In some ways, it has become harder to retrace and relate to family heritage as the world has changed. Dr. Vern Bengtson, professor of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, argues that, historically, people were closer to their relations because they were more reliant on the family unit for survival. However, even though people in modern society tend to be more independent, he says that our emotional needs still benefit greatly from strong family relationships, both in good times and in bad [source: ENCToday]. And celebrating your shared heritage can help you strengthen those family bonds.
Of course, the first step to celebrating heritage is to find out what it is.
How to Find Your Family Heritage
In some families, a sense of heritage might always be strong. In others, it can be easy to lose a hold on complicated personal histories. It only takes a few generations of failing to celebrate heritage for those precious memories and stories to be lost indefinitely. That's all the more reason to keep up the traditions -- or to pick them up again if they're on the brink of oblivion.
In your mission to discover your heritage, it helps to have at least a basic understanding of the past few generations of your genealogy. Luckily, genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, and there are plenty of resources that can help you along in this journey [source: Szucs].
Most experts recommend that you start with what you know. Document all of the names you can recall -- parents, grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles and so on. Also, if family members have told you any stories, record ones you remember. Did you have a great-uncle who was a decorated war hero? Do you know how family members coped during the Great Depression?
The next step is to talk to living family members. You should interview grandparents and ask them about their own lives, and they might even recall family stories that their parents passed on to them. Consider asking your parents to write down information about their lives. It helps to give them specific questions to answer, like ones about hometowns, high schools and important life events. Also, be prepared to encounter contradictory accounts. Family stories tend to change depending on who's telling them, so take note of the discrepancies.
Although we spoke of technology on the last page as a deterrent to our connection to the past, it nevertheless can make it easier to rediscover heritage. After you've gathered all of the information you can from personal sources, you can search online databases, using the details you've gathered to find out more from official records. For a fee, you can even send a sample of your DNA to some organizations in an effort to find distant relations, or to find out more about your origins. But beyond access to databases, computers can help you organize the information you document and even allow you to share that information with other family members.
Tips for Celebrating Your Family Heritage
Once you have a better picture of your family heritage, don't let that knowledge go to waste. Celebrating your heritage is a great way to carry on traditions and pass those memories on to future generations. Your celebration can take many forms, but it's important to try to incorporate every family member, young and old, in the celebration. Older family members are essential for sharing stories and memories, and you won't be able to effectively pass on family heritage if the younger generations aren't included.
Remember, food also has cultural significance. Just as the many people in the United States celebrate national heritage with a Thanksgiving turkey feast, a special family meal is one meaningful way to celebrate family heritage. If you're able to incorporate old family recipes, this will be a wonderful treat for older family members, and it can teach something to younger members, too. If you have a family member who's a beloved cook, ask him or her to give a cooking-demonstration to provide any tricks or family secrets.
Let your particular heritage dictate the activities you choose for your celebration. If your family has any recreational pastimes, such as games, sports or singing, this could make for a great activity. In fact, it's a good idea to make at least part of the event a fun and joyous event. This will ensure that the celebration becomes a happy memory and tradition that family members will want to repeat. Another idea is to resurrect an old tradition. If your grandmother tells you her father used to sing to the family during special occasions, ask a musically gifted family member to sing or perform for everyone.
Whatever kind of celebration you have, make it a cooperative event, where the work of preparation doesn't fall on just one person's shoulders. Ask around the family for different members to be in charge of different tasks. Designate at least one knowledgeable family member in charge of explaining the significance of your celebration as you go along. If you have photographs or important heirlooms, set them out in a special display, perhaps with explanatory cards. And one final idea: Consider setting aside a story time where an older family member shares a cherished tale. That's sure to give them some good memories to pass along.
- Crowe, Elizabeth Powell. "Genealogy Online." McGraw-Hill Professional. (July 25, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=sJCZrkFZICEC
- Dowell, David R. "Crash Course in Genealogy." ABC-CLIO, 2011. (July 25, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=JuW122lrH-IC
- ENCToday. "The Importance of Family." ENCToday. Jan.1, 2005. (July 25, 2011) http://www.enctoday.com/articles/family-318-relationships-families.html
- Melnyk, Marcia Yannizzee. "Family History 101: A Beginner's Guide to Finding Your Ancestors." Writer's Digest Books, 2005. (July 25, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=O0Gte-8GgRUC
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis, Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. "The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy." Ancestry Publishing, 2006. (July 25, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=Jw3kn_AgNTkC