Making and sharing holiday memories

The holiday season is underway and soon families will gather for meals and gift giving. With many relatives under one roof, this is a great time for genealogists to ask questions about holiday traditions practiced in the past or to try to learn more about the family.

Many people love to reminisce at this time of year and are willing to talk about their special holiday memories, and it’s an opportunity all genealogists should try to seize.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, so I recommend treading gently when you start asking questions. If someone changes the subject or hesitates, please don’t push them. Back off, shift gears, ask about something else, and give them space before trying to question them again. That’s true at any time of the year, but especially during the holiday season.

Sad but true, there are many people who don’t enjoy the holidays or have any happy memories to share. Others are seriously depressed with all the hoopla and TV specials emphasizing idealized families and celebrations.

I once worked with two people who definitely had mixed feelings about Christmas.  The man suffered a personality change and spent each December in a grumpy mood that only lifted when January rolled around. Another told me her family couldn’t afford Christmas presents so she and her mother wrapped things they already owned and put them under the tree so if a neighbor dropped by it would appear the family had lots of gifts like everyone else. My friend didn’t hate the holidays, but she had memories of tough times and it was a difficult season for her to get through.

I have to confess I have some unhappy memories surrounding the holidays as well. We always had family members with us, but those relatives didn’t always get along with each other, so there was often a tense atmosphere with arguments. I learned to tiptoe my way through Christmas Day and feel relief when it was over.

I had one reader ask me how he could “make” his relatives share information about the family. The short answer is that you can’t. If people don’t wish to talk about family memories, there is always a reason why, but getting them to reveal that by pushing them only makes things worse.

I advocate patience, and by all means try to get your relatives to talk about the past if they’re willing to do so. If they’re “down” don’t try to force them to be jolly but talk of other things and maybe once in a while sneak in a simple question, such as, “Did it snow a lot on Christmas when you were young?” or “Did the family go to church on Christmas Eve?” And remember, if a loved one died near Christmas, festivities of all kinds can be painful to the survivor.

I wish all of you the merriest of holidays. Cherish your loved ones and enjoy the season. Don’t forget to record your own memories for future family genealogists.

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