How to Use Thanksgiving to Jumpstart Your Genealogy and Family Tree Research

Updated: October 30, 2019
With all of the things you have on your plate daily as a parent, it can be hard to find the time for anything extra like genealogy and family tree research. Use Thanksgiving as the perfect opportunity to satisfy your craving for knowledge about your family's history, origins, and genealogy with these five ideas that will even get the kids excited.
Family enjoying thanksgiving dinner and chatting about at their family tree and geneaology

Thanksgiving is a time to focus on gratitude and spending time with family. This makes it a perfect time to jumpstart your genealogy and family tree research. You can learn more from sitting around the table with family members and asking good questions than spending hours online with your laptop. 

Discussing family history at Thanksgiving can also be a wonderful way to foster intergenerational discussion and to provide your family with a creative and fun way to pass the holiday time together. Thanksgiving is a perfect time to start family tree research for several reasons. With the winter holidays approaching, this will hopefully enable you to have extra quality time with the different sides of your family to delve into old stories, memories, and family names. Starting the traditions of creating and growing your family tree at Thanksgiving will provide you with activities and conversation topics that can continue during all of your winter holiday celebrations.

More: The Ultimate List of Family Heirlooms to Pass Down to Your Kids One Day

Thanksgiving is also an ideal time to begin family tree related conversations because it is a holiday rich with family traditions. Maybe you’ve used the same stuffing recipe for as long as you can remember, but you don’t know where it originated. Perhaps it’s a tradition to play a family game of touch football on the lawn each year or to display a turkey figurine that has been in your family for ages. Now is the time to start asking questions about those traditions. Where did these traditions come from? What are the memories associated with them? Which family members were the key players?

There is so much to learn about your family during Thanksgiving and the winter holidays that follow with a bit of intention and creativity throughout these months. Here are five ways to use your Thanksgiving holiday as a way to get started with your family tree research:

Family History Discussion Starter Cards

Mom playing family history discussion starter cards with her two daughters

When you set your Thanksgiving dinner table, be sure to include a stack of family history discussion starter cards. You can make these cards in advance with your children. Include questions that will lead to hearing old stories and names of relatives who are no longer with you. 

Examples include thought-starters like: 

  • Tell us the name of a relative you remember spending time with when you were little and share a memory of your time with them.
  • Tell us a story about someone from the generation before you that has been passed down.
  • Which relative did you always hear about as a child and wish you had gotten to know better?

Having each person around the table choose a card and answer the question will hopefully lead to hours of shared family history and names and connections to add to your family tree.

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Create a Family Tree to be Filled in Together

Dad coloring in a family tree with his daughter

Another fun preparation project for Thanksgiving is to create the form of a tree that can be filled in together on Thanksgiving day. This can be made on a poster board or with material like felt. Leaves can be created in advance and then put into place when the whole family gathers for the holiday. You can pre-make some leaves with names of family members you know, and you can even attach photographs like in this fun family tree project

Be sure to also leave blank leaves as your relatives will most likely remember many family members that you do not. You’ll be left with a beautiful keepsake and memory of this Thanksgiving with your entire family.

Build a Family Tree Stack Game

Drawings of various family members and their titles taped to stacked paper cups 

(Credit: TheCraftingChicks.com)

This Family Tree Stack game will be fun for both adults and kids alike. This is a perfect one for both Thanksgiving and family reunion gatherings. (Credit: TheCraftChicks.com)With a little prep in advance, you’ll have a game that can be used over and over as new cups are added for new family members, and as you create different groups of relatives to race against each other to build their family trees.

Family Name Meaning and Origin Research

Mom and daughter using computer and map to find family name meaning and origin

As you learn more about your relatives through Thanksgiving conversation and games, you’ll be sure to come upon the importance of family names. There are the names you’ve always heard relatives referred to as, and then there are the given names on their birth certificates as well as maiden names and married surnames to explore. 

You can use this name tool to learn the meanings and origins of the first names of family members. It will be interesting to hear how the meanings of the names match up to the personalities of the actual people according to your relatives. It will also be eye-opening to use this surname tool to learn about the cultures and origins connected to the last names in your family. Recording exactly where your family members were born as well as the origin of their names will lead to key info for your family tree research.

A Family Twist on Guess Who?

Family playing guess who on Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving game can be played in two different ways. In the first option, you can print out baby pictures of all of the family members attending your Thanksgiving celebration. Make a poster with all of the baby pictures, and then have family members take turns guessing who’s who. This is also a fun one to highlight family resemblance and how different relatives may not have even realized their similarities in appearance.

The second option is to play the game in the form of Hedbanz. Write the names of family members on labels that will be stuck to your Thanksgiving attendees’ backs. Then have them ask questions about who they are while they try to figure out which relative they are before hitting a certain question number threshold.

As you can see, learning about family history and building a family tree does not have to happen in isolation, and it’s a creative way to make the most of family gathering for a Thanksgiving celebration. 

Also, keeping a focus on a game-like atmosphere to discuss family history can keep things light and help to avoid some of the darker turns that conversations about the past can sometimes take. The Thanksgiving festivities will be intergenerational and different enough with these family tree jumpstarters to make it a Thanksgiving holiday to remember.