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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 12/22/1999


A Present for Your Descendants

Your holiday shopping is done. Your packages are carefully wrapped and put away. Every family member and friend has been taken care of. Those who know you are envious of your holiday preparation. You're thinking of giving Martha Stewart holiday planning lessons. Genealogists might want to consider adding one other "person" to the list of those in need of a gift at Christmas: the unborn family descendants.

If your family is fortunate enough to get together at Christmas, see if you can make some time to ask some of those questions you have been putting off. Make time to identify individuals in any old pictures that have not yet been identified. Bring copies of pictures to the get-together for family members to identify (photocopies that can be written on work well for this purpose). Many families get together at holidays and funerals. You may want to inconspicuously take advantage of this time to fill in some of the blanks in your family history database. You might even want to get a parent or grandparent one of those "Grandparent Memories" books to complete. Just remember that the holiday's purpose is not genealogical research.

There's something more personal you can leave for your descendants this holiday season: a record of how your family celebrates Christmas and what the holiday season means to you.

As the holiday season approaches, many of us think of holidays past, traditions no longer practiced, and family members long since deceased. Memories of these occasions and individuals are excellent things to leave as a present for future generations of your family. You might have written down some details of your family's past, but have you included holiday information?

A desire to learn about the holiday practices of our ancestors is a deep one and one that helps many connect with those family members who are long since gone. Some genealogy mailing lists focus on ethnic groups. The list traffic invariably turns to holiday traditions at this time of year. While I love to read the messages and learn a lot, I do wonder how my family celebrated the holiday. Did they put their own personal "spin" on family traditions? I wonder how my family practiced the various customs I read about on the mailing lists. How nice it would have been if my ancestors had left records of some of their traditions.

Write down some of the traditions your family currently has at Christmas. If the traditions have changed since you were a child, write down the old ones as well so they can be passed on. It might even be possible to begin practicing the tradition again, albeit in an altered form.

I can remember going to church on Christmas Eve with my parents and my maternal grandparents. There was always a children's pageant at church on Christmas Eve. Every year after the program, the children were given bags that contained an orange, peanuts (always in their shells), and more chocolate stars than a kid should have. Afterwards my grandparents would come to our house where we always had "checkerboard" sandwiches and oyster stew. As far as I was concerned, the oysters were too "slimy" to eat; I always ate the broth with lots and lots of crackers.

Christmas dinner was always at my paternal grandmother's house. But as grandma got older the dinner was moved to my parents' house. One holiday after my youngest daughter was born, grandma wanted to hold her and give her a bottle. I can't remember the date, but I can see grandma sitting on the couch holding Katherine. She had to struggle to hold her and it was a long time before she admitted her arms were tiring.

Who came for holiday dinner? Were there any arrivals that were momentous or surprising? The size of the get-together may range from the small ones I was used to, to larger affairs of forty or more people.

Some memories may not be entirely positive. Was there a Christmas during the war when brothers or husbands were away? Write about it. Have you ever had tuna noodle casserole for Christmas dinner? Maybe it was because Dad was on strike and the "fixins" for tuna noodle casserole were all Mom could eke out of the food budget. Or maybe it was because the entire family had been sick for four days and by Christmas Mom was sick herself and only felt like putting some things in a pot and placing it in the oven.

Some memories may be even less positive than these. The stress of the holiday season sometimes brings out negative behavior. Hopefully things can change for the future. There are a number of problems that could result in some unpleasant holiday memories. If there are situations you do not feel comfortable writing about, don't.

Look for positive holiday memories. Perhaps there was a favorite toy or even a Christmas television show you loved to watch (Rudolph is still a personal favorite). If memories are not pleasant, write about what the holidays mean to you today instead of focusing on the details of what took place. If you feel comfortable writing about the negative, do so, but do not force it. There may be other aspects of the season you can leave for your descendants to know. Leaving your thoughts on the holiday season (your "true" meaning of the season) may provide your descendants with insight into your beliefs and personal philosophy. And who doesn't wish that great-grandma had done that?

Put your descendants on your shopping list by leaving them your memories of the holiday season and what it means to you. They'll be happy even if it's not wrapped!

Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing.

Used by the author on his website with permission.

Other Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill