Family History Day: a new American holiday

Would you like to celebrate a new holiday with me?

I call it Family History Day, or Ancestors Day. 

Let’s celebrate it right before Halloween with a variety of fun and somber rituals, pulled from the most popular festivals around the world:

  • Qingming festival from East Asia
  • Día de los Muertos from Mexico
  • The rituals of Shinto in Japan.

From each I have chosen the best elements and combined them together to form a truly marvelous holiday. One that, I hope, will accomplish the goal: to gain wisdom. Wisdom is an elusive foe, one that evades us all our lives. Sometimes we find it right before we die or after a great tragedy, but none of us have it on a daily basis. This holiday is an attempt to find wisdom every year by seeking out those in our past who had it, for just a brief moment. It also formalizes the search into a ritual that can teach us about family, honor, and respect. Here is how other cultures celebrate.


The Qingming Festival, often called Ancestors Day, occurs on the Spring Equinox, usually around April 15, and is celebrated in many countries from China to Cambodia. “Celebrants remember and honour their ancestors at grave sites. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, paper accessories, and/or libations to the ancestors.” “It is also the time when young couples start courting. Families go on outings.” There is also a rich history of honoring ones ancestors through poetry and painting.

English Translation:

The ceaseless drizzle drips all the dismal day, So broken-hearted fares the traveler on the way. When asked where could be found a tavern bower, A cowboy points to yonder village of the apricot flower.

Día de loe Muertos

Día de los Muertos, translates as Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico over two days, November 1-2. The first day honors children and second honors deceased relatives. It is a fun and morbid holiday that celebrates death with joy. Families create candy and treats for children in the shape of skulls and skeletons.

Young ones get involved with costumes and skeleton dolls at parties with dancing and music. Adults visit cemeteries to “build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages as well as photos and memorabilia of the departed.” Celebrated on the Catholic holiday All Souls Day, the intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that they will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.


Finally, Shinto a Japanese belief system with no gods, scriptures, or founders. It is practiced by 110 million Japanese (over 85% of the country) with temples all over the country. The focus is on a tradition of respect for Kami, the powerful forces surrounding us, one of them being our ancestors. They believe it is possible to anger them or dishonor them, and they often spend a day paying respect to them.

Shrine visitors write their wishes on these wooden plates.
It is very easy to pray at a shrine like the Japanese people do. First, step up to the large wooden box and bow 90º to the shrine. Then throw some coins into the box. Typically a 5 yen coin is used because it signifies good luck, but 1 yen coins work just as well. Then ring the bell that is attached to the rope and clap 2 times. After which you can make your wish and pray to the spirit of the shrine. When you finish your prayer, bow again at 90º.

My Family History Day

The date for this festival will be at the end of October, which is also Family History Month. It will go along with the Halloween celebration of costumes and treats, like Día de los Muertos. Children will find it fun and playful while they are involved in rituals that respect the long-ago dead. The joyful element will also help the adults who actually have memories of those passed away. Like in the Qingming Festival, we will visit the grave of a lost one, or if that is not available a local cemetery. An item will be brought to place upon a grave as an act of physically reaching out to them. Stories and anecdotes will be shared and this must include ancestors as well as recent relatives. An ancestor is defined as a person, older than a grandparent, from whom you are descended. This will help us to remember our lineage as something more than yesterday and last week. Finally, in the tradition of Shinto, we will think of one way to change our livesfor the better, an action that will honor our history and allow us to show pride in our family. Now, time to go prepare for this event! Look for a follow-up post in November to hear how it went 🙂

Lives of great men all remind us 

We can make our lives sublime, 

And, departing, leave behind us 

Footprints on the sands of time; 

Voices of the Night, Longfellow

Photos: Qingming poem by Chinese Hour, Día de los Muertos by Museo de Arte Popular, Wooden Plates by Picdrops, Japanese praying by Jesslee Cuizon, Shinto forest by Keemz

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