“The Fun of Family Folklore,” Ensign, Aug. 1989, 69–71
My maternal grandfather used to talk to himself because, he’d often say with a grin, he was “the only intelligent person around.” On the other side of our family, my paternal grandparents always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. The children had to wait in the bedroom while Santa left his gifts, but they always heard his sleigh bells and his hearty “Ho, Ho, Ho.” How do I know these things about my grandparents? Because someone took the time to record our family folklore.
What is family folklore? It is closely related to genealogy, but rather than being an outline of a person’s life, folklore provides the details that let you see your ancestors as three-dimensional people. It deals with such items as anecdotes, traditions, superstitions, songs, riddles, and favorite recipes.
The best way to begin gathering folklore is to start asking questions, first to yourself and then to others. Family Folklore, a pamphlet published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., suggests the following, but use your imagination to come up with others.
What do you know about your family’s surname? What does it mean, and was the spelling or name ever altered? Why?
Are there any naming traditions in your family? In my family, the first daughter’s middle name is always Eileen, which was my grandmother’s middle name. We have a Lenora Eileen, a Margaret Eileen, a Maralyn Eileen, and a Shannon Eileen so far.
What stories have people told you about your parents and grandparents? What do you know about their growing-up years?
My dad always told me that Grandpa taught him how to swim by throwing him into the middle of a big pond. He says, “It wasn’t the stroke that was hard to learn. But untying the knot and getting out of the sack was difficult.” (This example shows that folklore doesn’t have to be fact. Sometimes who tells the story and the way he or she does it is more important than the information conveyed.)
How did you and your spouse, your parents, and your grandparents meet and marry? Kathy Smith, of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, tells that her father offered her husband fifty dollars to elope instead of having a church wedding. He gave her sister’s husband the same deal, but he increased the sum to seventy-five dollars. He was turned down both times!
How have historical events influenced or affected your family? Did a war or other conflict sever family relationships? How did your family survive the Great Depression?
Where do your family expressions come from? Are they handed down, or is one family member responsible for most of them?
When our eleven-year-old son, Rhett, starts dragging his lower lip, invariably someone starts singing, “Everybody hates me. Nobody loves me. Think I’ll eat a worm.” This is a song my husband’s mother sang to him when he pouted.
How and why does your family celebrate holidays? Do you hold family reunions? Do you have traditional activities at these events?
Are there certain foods your family eats for special occasions? Why are these foods served? Where did they come from?
Grandma Eileen always got a cherry-nut cake with fluffy white frosting for her birthday because it was on Valentine’s Day. And I remember her spending one summer afternoon teaching me how to make dinner rolls. This is folklore in its most appetizing form.
If your family has heirlooms, where did they come from?
Latter-day Saints have deep spiritual traditions. Who in your family has had faith-promoting experiences? Where, when, and under what circumstances did they occur?
Journals and letters provide excellent information on this subject, but if the person who had the experience is still living, ask permission before you use the material.
Now that you know how to gather folklore, the fun can begin. Here are just a few ways that you can share and enjoy your findings:
—Hold a family home evening at which everyone tells a story about an ancestor or other family member. Record the evening on videotape or audiotape. For refreshments, serve a favorite recipe of an ancestor or from an ancestor’s country.
—Begin a family scrapbook and add to it on a regular basis. Include sections such as Folk Tales, Family Romances, Holiday Traditions, Yummy Tidbits, Snappy Shots. Be creative.
—Give awards at your reunion for the oldest or most complete collection of an ancestor’s letters, recipes, quilts (including their history), and photo collections.
—Food and family reunions are inseparable, so bring goodies that have a story or tradition behind them. Place a card next to the food that tells why it’s a family favorite.
One final warning: Don’t become overwhelmed in collecting folklore. It can chase you out of the house if you let it. Go slowly and—generally—stick to your direct ancestral line. Now start collecting!—Maralyn Olson Hulkovich, College Station, Texas