Opinion

Holiday clues

The holiday season is upon us, and for family historians and genealogists it can be a great time to find clues you may have missed in the Christmas rush each year. Many of us have forgotten things that can help us learn more about our families. Let’s examine some possibilities.

Did you inherit a box of old ornaments and decorations? Can you remember sparkling ornaments hanging on a loved grandmother’s tree while your mother cautioned you not to touch anything fragile? Jot those memories down before they’re gone and identify the ornaments for future generations.  

Are there old family photos in an album showing happy groups of people around a festive tree or a table laden with food? Can you remember the names of those long-gone aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors? If nothing has been written identifying who these people were, take a few minutes and record them for posterity, along with the approximate date of the photo. Nothing is sadder than a family photo without any clue who the people were, and somehow unidentified Christmas photos are the saddest.  

How about Christmas cards and notes or letters kept and cherished by a parent or grandparent?  Letters in the past were individually written, not the generic “letters” we receive today sent to all and sundry on the Christmas list. Cards and letters can offer good clues for a researcher.  Look for things such as a card sent by “Cousin Joe and Annie” in Arizona. Who were they? Did you even know there was a cousin Joe and Annie?  Did you know they were in Arizona? Time for some research. What about a note that announces a new baby in the family, a new job, or even mentions that the soldier in the family will be home for Christmas? All these kinds of details offer wonderful opportunities for further research.

Finally, does Christmas mean baking wonderful goodies? Do you make your great-grandmother’s gingerbread? Is there an ethnic dish made each holiday such as German stollen or Finnish pulla? Maybe it’s not Christmas without a certain pie or pudding. If you inherited a wonderful family recipe and transcribed it, did you fully identify who first made the dish that is so special it isn’t Christmas unless it appears on the table? Time to make notes.

Perhaps you remember family stories of holidays in the past. My mother talked about holidays during the Great Depression. Her mother made popcorn balls and created mesh Christmas bags for all the children and grandchildren. These bags were treasured each year and contained inexpensive tiny toys, hard candy, an orange or other piece of fruit — all treats in a cash-strapped era. 

After the holiday season, perhaps it’s time to create a Christmas album so that your grandchildren or great-grandchildren will build their own memories as well as learning about the past. If you haven’t done this already, it’s a good project to tackle during the winter months.

I wish all of you a happy holiday season.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com. 

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