Unpacking the Gift of Your Inheritance this Holiday Season

The Inheritance Project
9 min readDec 24, 2019


The holidays are a time of reflection when culture, values, identities and traditions are on full display. Whether or not you spend your holidays dressing up in ugly sweaters, caroling with your friends or family, lighting menorahs and spinning dreidels, watching movies and eating take-out, or creating your own holiday traditions, this time offers a unique opportunity to celebrate who we are, what we believe and how we honor our ancestors.

While traditions and rituals differ from person to person and from culture to culture, every single human being on Earth shares one gift: the gift of our inheritance.

We are given the gift of our inheritance by our parents and guardians and pass it on to our own friends, communities, and children. This gift, however, is much more than material objects. It is the bedrock of who we are — experiences, talents, traits, beliefs, and yes, even traumas that we carry within us, and use to inform our identity.

So while we peel away wrapping paper, clink glasses and share our hopes for the decade ahead, how do we unpack this immense, intangible gift that we may not actually be aware of, but that we share with our loved ones, family, caretakers and friends in our own unique way?

How do we use the opportunity we have to spend intentional time with our communities and families to learn more about how we became who we are and find connection through a shared history?

Here are five ways to unpack the gift of your inheritance this holiday season with those you love. Let this complex time be an opportunity to create awareness, share stories and learn more about ourselves and one another.

by a zillion dollar comics

1. Start a conversation with a new definition of “inheritance”.

Only recently has popular culture began to understand how deeply the lived experiences of our upbringings impact our own emotional inner life and psychological well being.

Most of our families grew up in an age when focusing on yourself was not considered self-care, but selfish. Discoveries about how awareness of your own thoughts and feelings can transform your brain, relationships and mental health have only recently become recognized as established, transformational science.

So start by redefining what the word “inheritance” means.

Inheritance is not only the photographs, jewelry and property handed down through generations. It is also the ancestry, culture, beliefs, social conditions, traits and perspectives you received from past generations.

Every single human being inherited a set of very specific DNA from their parents which contains many memories, experiences and behaviors beyond our physical traits.

Inheritance also includes the experiences that affected 7 generations of family members so deeply, they passed on the memory to their children and so on and so forth, as a subconscious evolutionary instinct to help their offspring survive.

2. Ask your caretakers, community or chosen family some questions about the holidays of yesteryear:

  • How did your parents or guardians raise you to believe or to celebrate the holidays? How is it different from what you believe and celebrate now?
  • Do you have any particularly vivid memories of the holidays from your childhood?
  • Do you know how your parents or guardians celebrated the holidays? What did they do? Where did they go? How about your grandparents?
  • What did your parents or guardians eat? What about your grandparents? Do you know what their favorite food was?
  • What was your parents’ or guardians’ favorite or most cherished gift as a child?
  • What traditions were passed down from your ancestors that you feel connected to? (Dances, songs, foods, rituals, practices, etc.)

3. Make a dish your ancestors ate. If possible, have someone who knows the recipe teach you how to make it.

One of the most distinguishable and delicious ways we define our cultures is through food. Every single culture has their own unique way of making a dish — gnocci in Italy, pilmeni in Russia, perogis in Poland, wontons in China.

Find someone in your family or community who knows a family or cultural recipe, and help make it alongside them or follow their directions as you make the dish on your own.

As you stir the pot, fold the dough or fire up the grill, you are connecting directly with your own culture and ancestry and learning a culinary gift you can pass on to continue your family or culture’s traditions.

4. Sit down with your elders and hear their story.

While some families keep detailed accounts of their history, many people find it painful or difficult to reconstruct the history of their family or ancestors. The oldest members of our families and communities offer a connection to some of that history that may be missing from records and picture albums. And beyond the dates, names and faces in those documents our elders offer us a rare look into what their life and the life of our ancestors was like long before we were alive.

This holiday, take the time to learn and record the experiences, stories and perspectives your elders are open to sharing with you. While there is no way to change the past, you have the power to change the future by recording the present.

Give others the gift of their inheritance by doing a formal interview with the oldest members of your community and recording a video or voice memo to share their stories with future generations. Just think what an amazing gift it will be to remember their words and image after they have gone and sharing it with those who were not around to know them in the flesh.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. What is the story of how your family or community come to America?
  2. Where did you grow up? What are your earliest memories of home?
  3. What were your parents or guardians like? What were your grandparents like?
  4. What did you like to do as a child? What games did you play? How did you spend time with family and friends?
  5. Where did you go to school? What were your favorite subjects? Did you play any sports or do any activities?
  6. What role did religion, faith or spirituality play in your life?
  7. What did you do for work? What were your most challenging jobs or rewarding jobs?
  8. How did you meet your spouse or significant other? What was your wedding like?
  9. What traditions were important to your family or community? What traditions do you most want our family or community to continue?
  10. How is the world in 2019/2020 different from what it was like when you were a child?
  11. What is something you want people to remember about you? What is your legacy?
  12. What advice would you share with younger generations, your children or grandchildren?

5. Show and Tell

We’re going to revisit our pre-school days for this one. Even as adults, show and tell remains one of the most authentic, revealing ways to learn about one another. We all have gifts, objects, photographs, or memories from moments that define who we are. Invite your family or community to show you or tell you about things really important to them — your grandfather’s coin collection, your aunt’s and uncle’s’ tchotchkes, your grandma’s jewelry, your mom’s prom photos.

Ask them the story behind these objects, photographs, or memories. Maybe this is a present of great value, or a memory that can be preserved through oral tradition. Use this opportunity to learn the backstory behind your family’s heirlooms or learn about moments that changed the lives of those you love.

Bonus: What’s in our DNA?

If you purchased a DNA testing kit for a family member or friend this year or recently, use this holiday as an opportunity to continue the conversation about what’s in our genes. DNA tests offer limited results. The results may provide some people a map tracing the ethnic and national origins of their ancestors, and potentially their names and genealogy, but what these results are missing are the stories — the most important way to understand who we are.

With the gift of this valuable new information, ask your elders to help you connect the dots and find ways to dig deeper.

Who were these people who’s information you now have? How and why did their names change? How did they get to those points on the map? What were they like? What did they experience?

These stories contain information that has the possibility to reveal a wealth of understanding about our own personalities, fears, talents, experiences and tendencies, even our beliefs.

There are three agreements that will ensure this process will be productive rather than provocative:

  1. Be a good listener.

This doesn’t mean what you think. Being a good listener means repeating back what you heard those you’re talking with say so that they have a chance to confirm or revise themselves. This topic might be challenging for those who have very little information about their ancestors. Hold space for anything that comes up during this process with compassion and kindness.

2. Don’t play the blame game.

It’s important to remember to keep these conversations free of blame. Often, our caretakers consciously and unconsciously taught us what they were taught themselves in the hopes that it would help us survive and succeed. It can be hard to think about our past in impersonal terms, but taking blame out of the equation allows a space to share vulnerably and openly. Finding fault is different from accepting responsibility. So, while it is not your fault you inherited what you did, it is your responsibility to know how it affects the way you live your own life.

3. Respect each others’ boundaries.

Our inheritance is a gift, but it can also be difficult to talk about for reasons that may be painful or confusing. If someone doesn’t want to talk about a specific topic that is important to you, don’t force them. Instead, ask them what they would need in order to talk about this, or if there is another way you can learn about it. Often “no” means “not now”. Creating an environment where everyone feels safe and respected is critical for vulnerability and connection.

Wherever you might be this holiday season, these ideas can help make your holidays a meaningful gift for you and those you spend it with. Remember, you are history in the making.

To continue your own exploration of inheritance, attend our monthly Unpack Your Inheritance Workshop, a guided experience for individuals to deepen their understanding of how inheritance influences identity and behavior.

If you would like to unpack a difficult topic with your family and are in need of facilitation, send us an email at hello@inheritanceproject.org. We can help facilitate and create an Unpack Your Inheritance workshop for your specific needs.

If you’d like to learn more about your inheritance, visit our website www.inheritanceproject.org