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How family history influences holiday traditions, with FamilySearch’s Dan Call

FamilySearch.org’s manager of Discovery Experiences and Centers shared how exploring his ancestry deepened his Christmas experience

There’s something about Christmastime that makes people think about family members who have passed on.

The veil is thinner, said Dan Call. A light is in the world. And ministering angels are working hard behind the scenes, guiding individuals to those who need help.

“I think this is such a sweet and soft time to understand that we are all connected. … And I think we’re coming to a deeper realization of how thin the veil really is and how much those ministering angels are coordinating a lot of things to help us grow,” he said.

Call, who is FamilySearch.org’s manager of Discovery Experiences and Centers, shared his thoughts on family history work and holiday traditions during a recent Church News interview.

He wouldn’t describe himself as a natural genealogist, he said, or a “big researcher.” But being so close to family history throughout his career has transformed him.

“I think sometimes we think family history is a program. It’s not,” Call said. “It is a doctrine of the gospel that changes and softens hearts, and it has softened my heart greatly. … Angels are real. They are there in my life. And not only are they angels, but they are my loved ones who’ve passed on.”

FamilySearch and discovery experiences

Call said he never imagined a career at FamilySearch — in fact, he told his first boss that he’d stay only three years.

Thirteen years later, he’s grateful for his experiences with the organization, including his time on the team that launched RootsTech.

“It was really the hand of the Lord in my life,” he said.

A screenshot of FamilySearch’s “Where Am I From?” feature, which geographically maps a person’s family history.
A screenshot of FamilySearch.org’s “Where Am I From?” feature, which geographically maps a person’s family history. | Screenshot from FamilySearch.org

Call’s current responsibilities center around “discovery experiences”: activities tailored for family history beginners. They include the “Where Am I From?” activity that geographically maps a person’s family history; the “Famous Relatives” activity that shows individuals if and how they’re connected to famous people; and the “Compare A Face” activity, which matches a user’s picture to photos of ancestors they most closely resemble.

Discovery experiences are found under the Activities tab on FamilySearch.org, Call said.

“If you want to use the analogy of a pool, doing [family history] research is a 10-foot, 20-foot-deep pool. I’m trying to get people’s feet wet,” he said.

Call also noted the impact of technology on family history research. While family history once required people to spend time at libraries or otherwise visit physical locations, today’s researchers have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips.

Kids and teens in particular, he said, “are programmed to text and type. It’s in their DNA.” And they can use these skills to upload photos, documents and other precious remembrances of ancestors.

They can also use their skills to keep their own records of significant life events and of their testimonies, Call said. Sometimes people think they have to write books, but a few paragraphs about a holiday tradition or a testimony-building experience is more than enough.

“I’m telling you: Once that future family member reads that, that’s precious,” he said. “It is absolutely precious, and it connects through the generations.”

Another precious experience is taking family names to the temple. Every time someone does temple work for their ancestors, it strengthens generations, Call said.

“Taking that name [to the temple], that’s where it’s one in Christ. It’s one work,” he said. “And every time that we do it … It’s more special, because this is your family that you are helping to gather and bless and heal.”

A Midvale Elementary fourth grader helps decorate a Christmas tree at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.
Dan Call, FamilySearch.org’s manager of Discovery Experiences and Centers, shared how exploring his ancestry deepened his Christmas experience. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Family history and holiday traditions

Call also talked about how heritage impacts holiday traditions. As an adopted person, his Mexican ancestry was a “huge discovery” for him, and he now values traditions like Día de los Muertos.

He also has DNA from Norway and Iceland, countries where the concept of Yule developed. Yule is a time of deep, spiritual reflection, he said, held between the darkest day of the year and the new year.

Call said applying this practice to his life around Christmastime has helped him reclaim his Norwegian heritage.

Knowing where traditions come from takes work, “but when you can tie to where these traditions come from, the stories behind them, wow. Talk about nostalgic and beautiful,” he said.

He also loves traditions specific to his own family. His mother, for instance, put up a Christmas village every year. Although she’s been gone for 13 years, Call’s children carry on the tradition because they associate it with her.

“It’s fascinating how the things that we surround ourselves [with] can be used as a reminder of the eternal family,” he said.

Call said people are searching for connection, evidenced by how many superficial things the world offers to fill that void. But a person discovers their real identity and creates true connection by knowing their family history, he said.

Even when a person’s family history has painful chapters — everyone has skeletons in their closets, Call said — it helps them know who they are, what to avoid and what they want to do better, he said.

“My life would not be the same without family history,” he said, adding, “It is a doctrine that changes, and it’s through Christ. It is through Jesus Christ, it is through His gospel, [through] those powerful temple covenants. It’s transformative.”

Related Stories
Episode 167: FamilySearch’s Dan Call on honoring family history and traditions in the Christmas season
New ‘Discovery Experience’ augments Family History Library
‘Come, Follow Me’ for Dec. 18-24: What have Church leaders said about Christmas?
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