Harvesting the Light: Legacy for the Holidays

11/13/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

The days are getting shorter, the nights longer and darker. Temperatures are falling, but when our perspective is legacy and we warm our hearts and those we love by communicating gratitude and stories about how blessed we are, it feels like a summer day. Another way to say it is: Our eyes may be dimmer, our hearing impaired, but as long as we have memory and a passionate interest in stories, our own and others', we're blessed.

In this Tips&Tools we'll explore ways we can light our way and the way of those who will come after us.

One way we can approach our national holiday of gratitude, Thanks-giving, and the holidays of light, Christmas and Hanukah, is to participate by remembering, communicating, and preserving holidays of earlier times. All families have idiosyncratic traditions that when captured on paper will can light the way for younger generations of the family. Ask everyone invited to sit at your holiday table to reflect about and bring their favorite Thanksgiving story from an earlier time. Share them at the table to add memory and story to the aroma and taste of turkey, sweet yams, and pumpkin pie.

Making the Thanksgiving centerpiece about storytelling, ritual remembering, provides meaning that outlasts the food. What better moment than Thanksgiving (think "giving thanks," a day about more than stuffing... our turkeys and ourselves) to reflect on your life: from the present through mid-age -- young adulthood -- adolescence -- early childhood... stopping by the way, as on a snowy evening (echoes of Robert Frost)... to smell pine needles, sip apple cider, make angels in fresh snow, tell stories of past days in front of a crackling fire... to recall memories of holiday activities, traditions, family coming together to celebrate.

Another way is to initiate a tradition that can begin in 2014 and still be enjoyed 20 or 50 years from now as North winds blow and we anticipate a long winter and need the light of story and memory to keep us warm until spring emerges.

Here are two simple legacy activities to engage every age: Prepare ribbons -- colorful paper strips: two (2) for everyone. Have pens or markers available. Before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, invite everyone* to write three (3) things they're grateful for on this day, Thanksgiving 2014.

(*Everyone includes all but infants and toddlers. By the age of four, gratitude can be understood and nurtured. Children under the age of writing can be coached by an older child or an adult.) The strips can be signed or not as each individual chooses. The second activity is similar: Repeat this process asking each person to write a Thanksgiving blessing for the family, tribe, country, or our planet. Collect the gratitudes &/or blessings in separate crystal bowls, hand-thrown pots, or paper bags.

Pass the bowl/pot/bag around the Thanksgiving table before the meal, asking each person to pick one (so they are not reading their own) and to read it aloud for all to hear. Collect the gratitudes and/or blessings and preserve them in a book. Include a list of everyone present (and their ages), the location of the celebration, the menu, even a special recipe, as well as pictures of the people and the table. Copies of the book make memorable Christmas/Hanukah gifts, and can be saved and reread as you make this the first of what can become an annual tradition.

A third suggestion is to reflect about and jot a simple list of your precious and meaningful holiday memories. You may be prompted by the visual feast of festive decorating, the smell of traditional food, the memory of a grandmother's traditional recipe, unexpected visitors, a special decoration packed away to carefully unwrap for use as it has been down through the generations.

Look over your list and decide on one to write about. Write for only 15 minutes. You can return to your list as often as you choose to write about other memories you've rediscovered. Write the story of your memory, filling in the setting, introducing the people, describing your feelings, and your understanding of the tradition as it has made its way down to you today. Take another few minutes to incorporate your story into a legacy love letter, introducing the story as a holiday gift you want to share with someone. One way to close the letter is to express what it meant to you then, what means to you now, and your hope that the tradition and its story will be passed on as part of what you and those before you have valued.

And finally, this is the harvest season, with cornucopias overflowing, a time to preserve for the winter, and a time to share with those less fortunate than ourselves. You might find a project for all the family to participate in (many churches and synagogues pack Thanksgiving dinners and need packers and drivers to deliver food). Check your local homeless shelter to see if they need warm coats and mittens that you could gather and deliver as a family.

In whatever way appeals to you, this is a time to think "legacy" to respond to our yearning to bless and be blessed, and to engage your family to reach back or reach out before they pull up chairs to celebrate in our American way, watching football and eating 'til we're stuffed.

May all your writing and traditions bless you, those around you, and those who come after you.

-- Rachael Freed

NEW: Your Legacy Matters is now available everywhere. 2012 editions also available of Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations, The Legacy Workbook for the Busy Woman, Heartmates: A Guide for the Partner and Family of the Heart Patient, and The Heartmates Journal. (All legacy books are also available as pdf's on www.life-legacies.com.) Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker and adult educator. She provides programs, workshops, and training for financial, health, and religious organizations focused on legacy principles and practices. She has seven grandchildren. Her home is Minneapolis, Minn.

Follow Rachael Freed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/legacywriter