7 Things to Talk About Around the Holiday Table (Besides Politics)

Family History, Surnames
22 November 2016
by Paul Rawlins

I was thinking the other day, “Thank goodness the elections will be over before the holidays.”

Then I realized we won’t have the elections, but we’ll have the results. Which means somebody’s going to be even madder than they were before, while somebody else is gloating.

In the interest of preserving peace and family bonds (at least until after dessert is served—and maybe one round of leftovers), here are some safe, often entertaining, nonpolitical, and sometimes downright surprising holiday dinner table topics.

Military Service

Who? When? Where? What?

I don’t have any combat veterans in my immediate family. But my father was drafted and serving in Germany when the Berlin Wall went up, and I have an uncle who joined the Navy during the Vietnam War.

Just the other night, I got Dad reminiscing about Sergeant Shockley going ballistic when a drunk soldier desecrated the flowers he had planted outside the barracks.

And my nephews might even put down their phones if my uncle starts telling stories about Three-Wheeler Dave and his personal vendetta against the Hells Angels back in San Diego.

Your Last Name and What It Says About You

If you’re looking for a quick conversation starter, try learning the meaning of your last name.


    Enter your last name to learn your ancestors’ occupations.
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You might be surprised about its actual origins.

And you could find interesting insights like how long people with your last name live compared to the average (which could help explain why my Hemsley grandmother lived so long).


What? Who?

I do not, and probably never will, understand the allure of bread and milk with molasses for supper. I’m a fairly adventuresome eater, but I’ll stick with my bread in my hands and my milk in a glass rather than all of it together in a bowl.

But food’s a natural and seamless segue into a conversation after a holiday meal.  You can start with, “What did you used to have for [insert favorite holiday or special occasion here]?”

If Grandma’s gone, ask what she used to make for the meal. If she’s still around (lucky you—make sure you give her a hug), ask her what her holiday favorites were or what her mother made.


How? Where? What? $$$?

A few years ago, Ancestry launched their collection of Sears catalogs online. I mentioned this after a holiday dinner and opened up a whole catalog of memories.

My dad and his sibs grew up in a small, rural community during and in the decades after the Depression, and they were well acquainted with shopping from catalogs.

You can find out what they wore, if they had a favorite outfit, who got the hand-me-downs, what toys they played with, what games they liked—and how they determined sizes without trying things on. Suddenly, younger online shoppers will be nodding their heads in a rapturous moment of intergenerational understanding.


Where? When? What?

Sometime in the 1940s, my paternal grandparents went to Los Angeles on a train. This news came as a bombshell to me because I didn’t know they had ever gone anywhere.

Nor did I know that my grandpa might have made a good living picking horses (if he’d ever had any money to put down a bet).

That’s another story from the same trip. Did the older generations in your family have traditional jaunts? Does anybody remember a particularly special trip? Did they camp? Go to the beach? Spend the summer at Grandma and Grandpa’s?


Who? What? Where? When? How?

I have an uncle who used to catch rattlesnakes to make extra money. My grandpa got his brother to fill in for him hauling gravel while he married my grandmother—and then had to go back to finish his shift.

My dad was stacking milk cans once and ended up emptying one all over himself. You might know what your family members ended up doing, but what about their first paying job?

Were they ever fired? Did they have a dream job they never got? A boss they loved or couldn’t stand?


Where? When?

My dad and his brother used to wake up with frost on their blankets in the winter because the room they slept in was so cold. My great-grandfather built a fancy brick house that he outfitted for indoor plumbing and electricity before their little farm town had either.

The hardwood floors in my grandparents’ house came from an old gymnasium.

The homes your relatives grew up in are full of stories. Their walls can’t talk, but the people who grew up within them can.

Now You’re Ready

There’s nothing quite like a lively dinner conversation at the family holiday dinner.

Lean on these tips, and you could leave with some stories about your family that you’ll want to remember instead of bad feelings you want to forget.

And don’t forget: You can follow up on the interesting tidbits you hear about your family’s past with a quick search of your past, with a 14-day free trial.