Thanksgiving can be a special time for families to gather. It can also be a great time to remember ancestors and loved ones who have passed on. Establishing traditions around your ancestors at Thanksgiving can help youth and children connect with their heritage and give them a sense of belonging.

Here are 10 ways you can remember your ancestors at Thanksgiving time.

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Tip #1 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Document the cemetery where your ancestors are buried.

Across the world, gravestones are deteriorating and erosion is erasing the precious details of our ancestor’s lives. You can use the BillionGraves app to document, honor, and preserve the memories of those who are buried there and make the gravestone information readily available for genealogical research. Then even if a loved one’s gravestone is damaged or worn by time, the invaluable information recorded at their final resting place will still be available.

Grab your smartphone, download the free BillionGraves app and head out to your local cemetery. It’s as easy as taking pictures of each grave as you walk along. The app will capture the GPS location automatically and in just a short visit hundreds of records can be preserved. When you are finished, upload the photos – with one click of a button – so everyone can use them for family history and to preserve the memories of those you honor and love.

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Remembering your ancestors helps you to become like a tree with deep roots, not easily toppled in a storm.

Document a cemetery with your family this Thanksgiving.

Getting Started:

  1. Download the free BillionGraves app to your smartphone.
  2. After opening the app click on the “Cemeteries” button.
  3. Click the pin of your choice.
  4. Tap on the name of the cemetery, which will open the cemetery information.
  5. Go to “Headstone Images” to see a map of the cemetery.
  6. Pins represent gravestones that have already had photos taken. Look for a section of the cemetery without pins.
  7. Zoom-in as needed.
  8. Begin taking photos.

Photo-taking Tips:

  1. Stand to the side to avoid casting a shadow.
  2. Remove weeds, grass, or other debris that may block gravestone information.
  3. Be sure names and dates are inside the photo frame.
  4. Use the link icon in the corner of the screen to connect photos. This may be done for gravestones with multiple sides or to link family members.
  5. Use the pencil icon in the corner of the screen to label stones that may be difficult for transcribers to read.
  6. When you are done, click on “upload photos”. You can do this after you return home using a Wi-Fi connection or at the cemetery with your data plan.

You can even adopt a cemetery of your choice and mark it complete when all the photos have been taken. Here’s how to adopt a cemetery in 8 easy steps.

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Family traditions can start with the smallest things. 

Tip #2 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Continue the Thanksgiving traditions your ancestors started.

When one of my grandfathers, Paul, retired to North Carolina he noticed that many families had huge pecan trees that dropped nuts into their yards. The nuts were often viewed as a nuisance since they had to be picked up before the grass could be mowed. So Paul offered to collect the nuts for them. Then he took them home to crack with a handmade device he designed. His nutcracker was made up of a long wooden trough, just big enough for one nut at the end. It had a spring on a handle that pulled back like a pinball machine. When the handle was released it shot to the other end, crushing the pecan shell. He then removed the nut meat with a pick and bagged the pecans to give to family members at Thanksgiving. We never eat pecans at Thanksgiving without remembering him.

Our family also has a tradition of playing a “turkey-bowl” football game outdoors on Thanksgiving morning, whether the ground is covered in leaves or snow. There is now a 4th generation of turkey-bowl players. Whatever your Thanksgiving family traditions are, they can help you remember your ancestors and strengthen family ties.

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Food tastes better when you eat it with your family.

Tip #3 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Eat what your ancestors ate.

 Family recipes are often passed down as mothers teach their children to cook. Thanksgiving recipes are even more likely to be shared and used year after year.

My grandmother, Marguerite, was an amazing cook. When she passed away my aunt gave me her recipe box. I photocopied the recipes and made a booklet of them to share with my cousins. Eating what your ancestors ate can unify your family.

This is a recipe card from my grandmother’s collection, in her own handwriting. She lived in India for three months and, while there, she came up with this mild version of chutney, a staple in Indian cuisine. She served this chutney sauce with meat and it would be great on leftover turkey!

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Life’s important lessons are learned at the dinner table.

Tip #4 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Establish new Thanksgiving food traditions based on your ancestry.

But what if you don’t know what your ancestors ate? Here are three ways you could resurrect your family food traditions.

First, find out what your grandmothers cooked for Thanksgiving dinner by asking relatives. If you have someone in your extended family that keeps the vintage photos and documents, they may also have the family recipes.

Second, if you have done a DNA test, it could give you clues to finding recipes. Those who are your close DNA matches – first, second, and third cousins – are very likely to have had some of the same recipes passed down through their family lines that your ancestors ate.

Third, choose traditional recipes from the land of your heritage. Whether your DNA results show you are from Germany or Japan, Spain or Samoa, you could research recipes from your native lands. The dishes from those countries, which your ancestors would have eaten, could become your own new Thanksgiving traditions.

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If you haven’t taken a DNA test yet, this could be a great time to order a DNA kit.

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At the heart of every family tradition is a meaningful experience.

Tip #5 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Give thanks for those who came before you.

Many families have a tradition of sharing what they are thankful for on Thanksgiving Day. Consider asking each person to also tell about something they are thankful for that exists because of their ancestors.

Some families are thankful for their ancestors that came over on the Mayflower because without them we may not be celebrating Thanksgiving at all. There are about 35 million Americans that descend from the Pilgrims that braved the ocean in a wooden ship to settle a new country and establish religious freedom.

Or do you have a veteran in the family who fought for the freedoms you enjoy that allow your family to meet together on Thanksgiving? My grandmother remembered sitting at the feet of her great-grandfather with her cousins as he peeled apples for them with his pocket knife and told stories about the Civil War.

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The roots of joy are found in gratitude. 1904 lumberjack

Tip #6 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Share stories about your ancestors with your family.

Telling stories is so important to tie generations together. It brings a sense of identity and love for heritage. If youth know who they are and who went before them they will feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

Did any of your ancestors have unique talents or occupations? Our children and their cousins thought it was awesome that their great-great-grandfather John Anderson was a lumberjack. John and his brother, Peter, emigrated from Denmark to the United States. They could quickly climb to the top of huge trees with only a rope to help steady their progress.

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Storytelling makes the past come alive.

Children can identify with an ancestor when they may have gone through a similar experience of their own, such as braving the stage in a school play. One of my grandfathers got permission to skip some of the chores on the family farm for a few weeks to participate in a play – even though he was assigned a part with only one line.

In his deep bass voice, he was to sing, “And the bullfrog in the hooooole!” He practiced in the fields as he mowed hay and in the barn as he milked cows. When the big night finally arrived, he loudly sang his part but was drowned out by a passing freight train. Sigh.

I’m sure you have some well-told family stories too. Has anyone preserved them? It would be a good idea to have a recording device on hand this Thanksgiving to capture your precious stories!

As your family leaves your Thanksgiving gathering they will have more than just full bellies, they will have full hearts and a feeling of “I know who I am.”

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Slow down for the day and take time for the people in your life.

Tip #7 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Slow down for a day.

Our ancestors lived at a slower pace of life. They had time to ponder as they churned butter or milked cows. They read or did needlework by the fireside in the evenings. They took the time to talk to their neighbors and sent handwritten letters to loved ones. They spun their own wool and sewed their own clothes.

We can follow their example – if only for a day. For many families, Thanksgiving weekend marks the beginning of the busiest time of year. If you can, take a day to slow down before the rush of the Christmas season. Go for a long walk, take a bath, listen to music, or take a nap. Think of the pace your ancestors may have kept. Your body, mind, and spirit will thank you in the days ahead.

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Gratitude helps us make peace with the past, brings joy for today, and invites hope for the future.

Tip #8 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Give thanks for the character traits passed down from your ancestors.

 At Thanksgiving dinner, you could have everyone tell about a particular character trait your family tends to have because of your ancestors. Are you grateful for your great-grandfather who worked so hard on his farm that his hands grew rough from hauling hay, milking cows every day at dawn and dusk, and plowing fields? Maybe your family tends to be a hard-working bunch in part due to his example.

Youth can be taught to value particular characteristics as they learn how their ancestors developed those traits. Our children learned that they could be thrifty and save money from the example set by their great-grandparents who were married during the Great Depression.

They produced most of their food on their farm and hardly bought anything at the store. Cream from their dairy cows and eggs from their chickens were sold for a little extra money. They canned all their own fruits and vegetables from their garden and even canned 200 quarts of beef each year.

They grew their own wheat and ground it to flour. Grandpa carried 25-pound bags of wheat flour up to their attic to store it for winter use. Some of the flour was exchanged for sugar. For special occasions, they bought a few oranges. They bought toilet paper for the house but used Sears and Roebuck catalog pages for toilet paper in the barn.

Children might think twice about being honest, trustworthy, or kind if they know their ancestors practiced those same character traits. They will develop a feeling of who their family is and the part they play in it.

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Family . . . different branches from the same roots.

Tip #9 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Take generational photos.

As your family gathers for Thanksgiving it can be a great time to take generational photos. Do you have three or four men in your family that share the same surname – or even given name? It’s fun to compare how much several generations of mothers and daughters look alike in photographs.

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Tiny little feet will follow in the footsteps left by the generations who walked before them.

Great-grandma’s hand holding a tiny new baby foot makes a precious photograph. Try taking photos of grandpa walking hand-in-hand with his grandsons through the woods. As you record these sweet moments, they will become treasured Thanksgiving memories you won’t forget.

If you have photos of ancestors that have passed away, you could extend your generational photos even further. Just put great-great grandmother’s photo in a frame to be held by her little great-great-granddaughter.

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My great-grandfather was a talented photographer. He took his own image in three different positions and merged them to create this photo, making it appear that he was seated at the table with himself. 1904

Tip #10 to Remember Your Ancestors on Thanksgiving:

Talk about your family photos.

One of my great-grandfathers, Willis Cheney, was an accomplished photographer. He took images of himself from three different angles and then pieced them together to make it look like he was sitting with himself around a table (see photo above). A photograph like this would be challenging to create even with today’s technology – in his day it was a masterpiece!

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Labeling photographs can make all the difference between the images becoming priceless heirlooms or worthless trash in just one generation.

Do you have a box of old photos? Are they labeled? Thanksgiving would be a great time to pull them out and talk about them as a family. Then write names and dates on the photos before everyone forgets who the people are. If you aren’t the keeper of the family photos, perhaps you could invite whoever is the family record keeper to bring them along to your Thanksgiving dinner.

With all these ways to remember your ancestors this Thanksgiving, you may even be tempted to set a few extra chairs out for them!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Cathy Wallace and the BillionGraves Team

If you would like to take GPS-linked photos at a cemetery with the BillionGraves app, send us an email at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com. We’ll be happy to help you, your extended family, or service group with step-by-step guidelines!

Let us know how many people are planning to participate, the date of the event, and if you already have a cemetery in mind.