Thursday, December 13, 2012

Family History Ideas For The Holiday Season

I've mentioned in passing that I have a history degree. Around the time I graduated from college I used my new found history skillz to put together family genealogy projects for my mom and dad. This project was based in my love of research and the fact I was really quite broke. I expected it would be a one and done type thing.

Yeah, not so much. I fell in love with genealogy. How could I not? After all, my historical focus has always been bottom-up (the personal, the local) over top-down (rulers and wars). This was my own locality and my own family. I think I'm going to do a whole series of genealogy posts, but I wanted to start with three easy Christmas related genealogy projects.

My grandparents and uncle in the late 1930s. 
My grandparents, younger than I am now (gulp!). They were both gone before I became interested in genealogy, and I have so many questions I love to ask them!

Take A Holiday Related Oral History

The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide is ground zero for any work with oral histories. It's kind of long, and I'm going to summarize, but if you have any serious interest in family history you should really read it.

Here are the basics of oral histories. Ask open ended or directed questions. "Did you like Christmas when you are little?" doesn't work because it only requires a yes or no answer. "What was New Years like?" is soooo open ended. That's a big question, and people sometimes get lost in big questions. So you want open ended but very directed questions. Here are some questions to get you started.

1. Where did you spend the holidays when you a child?

2. Who did you spend the holidays with? 

3. What foods did you eat at Christmas?

4. What was your favorite part of your family's holiday celebrations?

5. What traditions were important when you were little? What tradition do you wish we still did? What traditions do we still do?

6. What is your favorite memory of the holidays?

I suggest recording these interviews. Camera, phone, laptop, it doesn't really matter. Just record it and immediately back it up. Later you can slice the interviews into movies, or transcribe the interviews into written form.

Often Sometimes the interviewee will go off on what you might think are unrelated tangents. Especially with older people. Let them. If it goes and on you might try to redirect a little, but honestly? The best stories come out when you least expect them. So just let it go and you can edit your recording later.

This is also a good time to collect artifacts. If you have snapshots from the interviewee's childhood or young adult Christmases, get them out and ask for descriptions of what was going in the pictures. Try to get dates, names of people, and location of the pictures (at the minimum). DON'T WRITE ON AN ORIGINAL PICTURE. EVER. I will come to your home and make you read books about proper archival techniques. 

By the way, I did a similar interview with my grandmother and discovered her mother made a certain kind of fruitcake. My grandmother hadn't had it since her mom died and didn't have the recipe. Thanks to google I found the recipe for Japanese fruitcake and made it for her.

Photo from Pink Pig Flyer
The Pink Pig was a monorail that ran through a downtown department store (Rich's) then on the roof. For generations of Atlanta kids it was one of THE big parts of Christmas. Every city and family has its own crazy traditions!

Get The Whole Story

Every family has certain foods, old ornaments, or other bits of holiday ephemera that is woven deeply into the fabric of the holiday season. Use this time to get the story behind it. Who made the faded construction paper Santa? Where did the felt reindeer all the grandkids love to play with come from? And, going back to my last point, try to get holiday photos identified.

Do this with your own holiday traditions. You might think you'll always remember the cute story behind the aluminum can ornament your child made, might not. So take a picture of it and type up the story behind it. 

My grandmother (from the picture above!) had a cross stitch just like this, and now my parents have it. Did she make it? When? Or was it a gift? I wish I'd asked!

Remember You Are Making History

Family history isn't just concerned with everyone who came before you. Leave a record of holidays you experience! This is especially fun with children. Every year ask them the same questions. Here are some examples.

1. What was the most exciting thing that happened at Christmas?

2. What do you love best about the holidays?

3. What is your favorite thing to eat at the holidays?

4. What is your favorite thing to do? cetera. Each family will want to customize these questions around their own traditions. Recording the answers every Boxing Day and then editing them together would be AMAZING. You could also write out the answers and bind them into a book. Don't forget to answer the questions yourself!

Photo From Celebrations
So many kids (according to blogland and Pinterest, anyway!) are going to have lots of Christmas memories based around Elf on the Shelf. So record the Elf's adventures and the kids reactions to it!

Does anyone else have traditions or genealogy tips they'd like to share?

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