On the eve of Hanukkah, 1943, hundreds of prisoners in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were randomly selected, beaten and killed. It was, reportedly, the way the Nazis wanted to welcome in the Jewish holiday. But the next night, in the midst of horrifying dangers, Hanukkah came to Bergen-Belsen. A wooden shoe of one of the inmates became the menorah; strings pulled from tattered camp uniforms were twisted into makeshift wicks; and black camp shoe polish was used for oil. An imprisoned rabbi recited prayers and recalled the struggle and miracle witnessed by their ancestors. Once again, hope was rekindled through a ritual that had enabled Jewish self-preservation through centuries of crusades and pogroms.
The obvious power in such rituals caused my own mom to take an interest in Jewish holidays when I was young. Though we are not Jewish, Mom intuitively sensed something important in the pattern of nurturing identity by remembering one’s history – and remembering it together as a family. Recalling the struggles and triumphs of our family and national heritage became the pattern for all of our holiday celebrations. And so, on Thanksgiving – as on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, and the 4th of July, Mom and Dad told us of our history, reminding us of the past sacrifices that had enabled the present blessings.
With 5 kernels of corn placed near our plates as a reminder of the daily ration of food our early pilgrim ancestors lived on, Mom would remind us that half of the courageous band of 102 pilgrims died during the first winter. But none would board the Mayflower to return to England the following spring. The spark of faith that lit their way to settle the American wilderness was aflame with hope for a land where religious liberty could be a light to the rest of the world. As we remembered their story of courage and sacrifice, they became part of us, through our family heritage, as well as our national heritage.
Insightful research out of Emory University explores why this pattern of remembering history together is so important in family life. An analysis of typical dinner conversations among middle-class families found predictably that families were likely to talk about their day, such as what happened at school and work. But families also shared stories from their past – including stories about parents’ childhood. Knowing these family history stories was associated with better outcomes for children including lower anxiety and depression, and less anger, aggression, and acting out.
Additional research revealed that the more children knew about their family’s history, the higher their self-concept and the stronger their sense of ability to make decisions and achieve desired goals. And these effects were found after taking into account the positive effects associated with general patterns of healthy family communication and interaction.
Knowing stories from family history itself seemed to instill a strong sense of identity, grounding children in the recognition that they belong to something bigger than themselves – something from which they draw meaning, strength and wisdom. No wonder, then, great sacrifices have been made throughout history to continue the rituals that enable individuals to remember who they are and what they belong to– sacrifices like celebrating Hanukkah in a concentration camp in the face of death and starvation.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.