Dad’s fishing stories, Mom’s special Thanksgiving recipes, Aunt Jane’s memory quilts, Uncle Bob’s silly songs, Grandma’s home cures, Great-grandmother’s heirloom jewelry. What kinds of folklore traditions are unique to your family? Family folklore includes family stories and tales, traditions or customs, special foods, sayings or expressions, heirlooms and family treasures, folk arts and crafts, songs, and more. Families create and pass on folklore to other family members, and it becomes a part of their identity. Celebrating family folklore is one part of preserving your family heritage. What special things have your ancestors given you? What things are reflective of your family’s identity?

Author Alex Haley once stated: “In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” Older adults, in particular, provide a unique connection to the past. As the oldest members of an extended family, they can share the experiences of three or four generations. They play an important role in passing on family heritage to younger generations. Because their lives are rich with memories, they are family historians or story collectors. Ask your group: What has been passed down through the generations in your family? What are the treasures of your heritage? Is it a family Bible, a special recipe, a piece of furniture, a wedding photograph, an immigration story about your great-grandparents, a birthday tradition? What do you wish to preserve and pass on to the next generation?

Spending some activity sessions on the topic of family folklore will help you get to know your group members. A good place to start is with an event from childhood. Invite participants to share a story that they heard their parents or grandparents tell again and again, often at a family gathering. Do other relatives in the family tell the same story in a different way? Next, ask participants to recall a family adventure that they enjoy repeating to their children and grandchildren. Encourage your group to share memories of their grandparents, parents, brothers, and sisters, and other family members. Examples: Who was the oldest family member you can remember as a child? What was he/she like? Tell the story of how your parents met. Share a tale about playing a joke on a sibling.

Here are a few more introductory activities to help your group explore the topic of family folklore.

  • Share stories of family history and ancestry. Ask: What people and events were important in your family’s past? Does your family tree include immigrant ancestors? Invite group members to share a story about a special ancestor. Or, invite someone with a living relative who has an immigration story to share. Encourage participants to show vintage family photos and mementos. For photos, ask: Who are the people in the photo? How are they related? What are they doing? Describe their clothing. When and where was photo taken? Who took the photo?
  • Recount the major historical events that affected your family. For props, display a 20th century timeline, historical photographs, and old newspapers. Use a news event as a talking point to share the story of a family member. Examples: The struggle through the Great Depression or a World War II experience.
  • Explore the origin of your family name. Ask your participants: Is there a naming tradition in your family? For example: Did you name the first son after the father or grandfather? Who named you? Were you named for anyone? Does your name have significance within the family (religious or ethnic)? Are there traditional first names in your family? Have you ever had a nickname?
  • Display family heritage scrapbooks with old pictures and memorabilia. Invite a scrapbook hobbyist to share a brief history of the scrapbooking tradition. Review scrapbooks of people from different generations. Libraries often have collections of early scrapbooks.

Family stories make up the rich treasury of your family’s history. Stories are a way to help younger family members know the history of the clan. They help strengthen family ties. Recollections from the past are often told and retold at family get-togethers. Ask: Do you have any natural storytellers in your family? Do you enjoy telling a story? Invite a professional storyteller to join your group and offer tips for telling family stories. Encourage participants to share some remembrances and life stories unique to childhood. You can elicit a number of personal stories with these openers.

  • “When I was little . . .”
  • “The first time I . . .”
  • “My mother said . . .”
  • “On Sundays, we always . . .”
  • “My favorite place was . . .”

For some intergenerational fun, invite older children to hear the family stories. The youngsters can draw a picture of the story they heard or compose a skit based on the characters in the conversation. Share old-fashioned iced sugar cookies with the group.

You can share stories through books as well as family storytelling. People of all ages love tales. Invite participants to share a favorite reading memory. Ask: Did your father or mother read aloud to you? What kind of books did he/she read? Where did they read to you? Did your grandparents read or tell stories from a favorite rocking chair?

Visit the local antique store for special props–handmade doilies, pocket watch, vintage hat, doll, teapot, candy dish, locket, baseball cards, old crocks and jugs, diary–to encourage reminiscing and discussion among your group. Is there a “story” to be told about one of the objects?

Music is often a big part of the life of a family and can rekindle many fond memories. Ask: What was the first song you remember your parents or grandparents singing to you? What music, songs, or instruments did your family enjoy? Are there special songs your family sings when you have big family gatherings? Did you sing any silly songs or lullabies to your children?

Here are a few more activities for collecting stories and family folklore.

  • Celebrate your cooking heritage by reminiscing about large family meals. What special recipes were passed through the generations? Talk about family heirloom cookbooks as a way to preserve family recipes. Invite a family member to prepare a special dish to share. Be sure to get the “story” behind the recipe. Ask: What is the origin of the recipe? When was it prepared? Who made it? Are there special ingredients? Has the recipe changed over the years?
  • Special traditions, celebrations, and customs are also a part of folklore. Ask your group to think of a favorite holiday. How did your family celebrate it? Here’s a way to help your participants share the “story” behind the holiday tradition. Example: St. Patrick’s Day. Describe the images you have of the holiday. What sounds were associated with the event? Are there special smells or odors that you remember? What kinds of foods did you enjoy tasting? What parts of the celebration did you inherit from your parents or grandparents? What new traditions did you add to the holiday?
  • Does your family have a heritage of folk arts, like rug braiding, candlemaking, pottery, wood carving, basketmaking, quilting, bead work, or dancing? Handmade folk objects are often passed down from generation to generation. Display some family treasures or heirlooms with the intent of capturing a story that explains the object’s significance to the family. For example, invite a quilter to explain the story behind the design on a memory quilt. Or, ask a German-American couple to talk about the custom of polka dancing at wedding receptions.


Older family members often pass on advice to the young in the form of proverbs. A proverb is usually a short phrase that contains a bit of wisdom. Where do proverbs come from? How are they passed from one generation to the next? Ask your participants to explain the meaning of each proverb listed below. What kind of lesson or message do the proverbs teach? Give an example of a family situation in which the proverb might apply.

  1. The early bird catches the worm.
  2. Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  3. Don’t cry over spilt milk.
  4. A stitch in time saves nine.
  5. Loose lips sink ships.
  6. Put your money where your mouth is.
  7. Variety is the spice of life.
  8. Haste makes waste.
  9. Every cloud has a silver lining.
  10. Look before you leap.

Ask: Are there unique sayings or proverbs you remember hearing as you were growing up? Who said them? When were they repeated? Share proverbs learned from family members. What are some of your favorite family sayings, expressions, or proverbs?


“Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” ~ Victor Hugo

“FAMILY FOLKLORE” written by Sue Hansen. © 2006 ElderSong Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

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