Some family Christmas traditions carry over easily from generation to generation, and some don’t. Here’s one tradition I tried passing on to my children, and how it has played out. It reminds me that traditions themselves can be unexpected–which ones have staying power and how each generation reshapes heritage in its own way.
That’s me in the green coat, between my grandma and my mom. My dad stands on the left, with my four younger brothers in the back of the truck.
I grew up with several family Christmas traditions: making candy cane cookies, tromping through the snow to cut a live tree and, on Christmas Eve, re-enacting the Nativity with my brothers as my dad read from the Bible. Over the years, my husband and I have tried several of these traditions. Some traditions have translated well into our lives, and some haven’t. (Though I loved it as a child, the year I walked a mile into the woods in heavy borrowed boots while pregnant was my last for cutting a live tree.)
One holiday tradition that has rooted itself in my children’s lives surprised me. It’s not exciting or tasty. Yet they have adopted it fully–and they’ve even started documenting it.
A family Christmas tradition that lives on
My mom always loved putting up the Christmas tree. She planned a made-for-memories event each year, hoping to have joyful carols, hot chocolate and pictures worth putting in the Christmas letter. What she got from me and my five brothers was usually less idyllic. We sang plenty of carols, loudly, but they were more likely to be “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” than “Silent Night.” Pictures always had someone sticking out a tongue or elbowing a brother. And my mom often had to wrangle us into putting up the tree and stringing up the lights first, which was guaranteed to make some of us grumpy.
But every year, my mom made sure we each had a new ornament to hang on the tree. Sometimes she made or bought it. Sometimes another relative sent us ornaments. I don’t know how she always had these ornaments amidst the chaos of Christmas preparations for six children. But she did it. She even labeled them with our names and the year.
When I left home, she gave me a box of my ornaments–along with a list, year by year, of which ornaments we received and extra notes about some of them:
About six years ago when decorating our tree with my husband and children, I pulled out my box of childhood decorations with my mother’s list in it. For some reason, that year, her list especially spoke to my heart. I knew I wanted to do this for my own children. So I divided up the ornaments I’d given Jeremy, Alex, and Seneca over the years. I added a couple of ornaments for years that didn’t have them. I started lists. They weren’t fancy lists: just a piece of notebook paper, like my mom’s on yellow legal paper. I figured if I waited until I found holiday stationery, it would never happen.
The following year, I presented my children with cute boxes for their ornaments. I slid my lists into sheet protectors and taped them inside each box. They were actually delighted to hang their own ornaments! No cajoling was necessary.
In fact, we had so much holiday cheer that my husband decorated his ear with an ornament. My oldest son Jeremy began snapping pictures. Seneca launched herself at Jeremy, Alex pounced, and they all dissolved into a pile of giggles on the floor, their Santa hats somehow still intact.
Since then, the kids have gone looking for their own boxes of ornaments each year. Some years I am more prepared than others: this year, they will get their 2017 ornaments on Christmas Eve.
I love that my children have come to own this tradition. Alex has actually begun documenting his new ornaments himself. You can see how he picked up where I left off:
Now that I’m a mom, I can’t help but look at my mom’s list a little differently. It’s a chronicle of a mother’s love, steady and shown in little things and relatively unappreciated. Across the top of her list, she wrote, “DON’T LOSE!” She was probably thinking of her carefree young adult children who might not appreciate this box of ragtag ornaments and what it represented to her. Today, I think her message is more than a warning not to lose the ornaments she so carefully tracked and packed away each year. It’s about never losing hold of her love for us–the heritage that matters most.
In our family, at least, the adoption of any tradition is a little messy and uncertain, especially now that I have teenagers. I never know whether’s it’s going to “take,” who’s going to roll their eyes or rebel, whether they will feel and respond to the message behind the time we spend together and the rituals we create. My solution is to try a lot of traditions. To not be afraid to change things up to suit my own little band of a family–even to create new traditions on the fly. To be flexible with my expectations–they may very well wrestle instead of sing “Silent Night” as they hang their ornaments, and that’s fine. As long as they are laughing and creating memories of the ways their family shared its love.
May you enjoy creating or reliving your own holiday traditions this year! Feel free to share any with us on the Genealogy Gems Podcast Facebook Page.
Merry Christmas to your family from mine, and from all of us here at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems.
Common surnames can make genealogy research more challenging. But learning more about your last name (including how common it is) can also enrich your family history. Check out 4 free online tools for learning more about your family’s surnames. Then share what you learn the next time your relatives get together!
If you have common surnames on your family tree, you may have become frustrated at times trying to determine whether the “John Williams” or “Elizabeth Smith” you’re looking at in a record belongs to your John or Elizabeth. Would it make a difference if you discovered they lived in an area where there very few folks by those names during that time period? It would. Furthermore, it would probably also be nice to know things like where else in the world–or within England, for example–that surname is found now (or was in the past).
The enormous amount of census, vital records, and family tree data now online is making it easier to answer questions like these. Below, find free online tools for mapping common surnames (and less-common ones, too) across time. They include surname search tools hosted by a couple of our Genealogy Giants, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. What can you learn from the following sites? Do they agree with one another? Check them out!
Your surname in the 1990 and 2000 U.S. censuses
The US Census Bureau has created databases of last names that appear in recent censuses. You can look at the results a couple of ways:
- Click here to search for your surname among the most common 150,000 surnames from the 1990 and 2000 censuses. These surnames cover about 90% of those who participated in the census.
- Click here to view a list of all surnames that appear 100 or more times in the 2000 census. (Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller and Davis all top a million occurrences!) According to this webpage, the top 15 surnames have remained fairly steady in the most recent three censuses with one exceptional trend: Spanish-origin surnames are starting to make the lists.
Common surnames of England and Wales
Find out how common your surname is today in England, Wales, and the Isle of Mann. The Surnames of England and Wales – the ONS List has a searchable database of almost 270,000 surnames shared by 54.4 million people (it excludes surnames occurring fewer than 5 times in the total database of nearly 60 million people). The list compiled between 1998-2002 does have some duplication and misspellings: “experience suggests that multiplying the result for your surname by 0.93 will give a good idea of the living population for your surname.”
What’s in a name? Ancestry.com answers
Ancestry.com hosts this fun and free tool for those with roots in the U.S., England, Scotland, and Wales:
Remember, it’s not a precise genealogy research tool. But it can prove interesting. When I ran this search for the married surname of our Genealogy Gems DNA expert, Diahan Southard, I was shown (among other things) this interesting map illustrating how the Southard family was spread across the United States in 1920:
Surname directory at MyHeritage
MyHeritage.com hosts a searchable surname directory taken from data found on its site. To search the surname directory, choose the first letter of the last name from the alphabet shown below the search screen. (If you enter a name in the blue search boxes, you’ll be taken into their record-searching area, which isn’t the same):
You won’t find all names surnames here, though you may find variant spellings of yours. (I never knew McClellan could be spelled in so many different ways!) Here’s a map of how they find my husband’s surname, Morton, scattered across the globe:
Looking for more surname distribution maps? Click here to find a list organized by country.
Next Steps: Try this with your common surnames
If you’ve taken a DNA test…Thousands of people are compiling their same-surname DNA test results into surname projects. Click here to learn more about how to “social network” your yDNA test results in a surname project.
If you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium subscriber…you can watch Lisa Louise Cooke’s fabulous video tutorial, Common Surname Google Search Strategies. Use her tips to find even your most commonly-named relatives online! (Not a Premium member? Click here to learn more–for one low price, you’ll get a year’s access to hundreds of Premium videos and podcast episodes!)
These three must-read titles from our Genealogy Book Club would be great stocking stuffers for yourself or someone you love. See my newest book recommendations for family history lovers by best-selling authors Christina Baker Kline (Orphan Train) and A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically)–and another author I recently discovered and couldn’t stop reading.
3 Must-Read Books for Family History Lovers
“You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.” So says the Prologue to a new novel by best-selling novelist Christina Baker Kline, whose novel Orphan Train has been loved by millions around the world (and a lot of Genealogy Gems Book Club fans–we featured it in 2014).
A Piece of the World is a unique and irresistible story about a woman whose physical disabilities and family’s demands keep her adventure-loving spirit firmly homebound. Granted, her home is a fascinating place: a 1700s-era home on the coast of Maine that has been passed down for several generations. But the noble legacy of the home instills a sense of obligation in those who live there now: do they stay on the family land at all costs, even the cost of their happiness and health? What happens when a family’s heritage becomes a burden, not a blessing?
Those who love American art will love that the main character, Christina, was inspired by the subject of the Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. (You can see an image of the painting here.) Christina was a real person who lived in this home. Andrew visited her and her brother and painted them many times. So the characters and setting are real, and the house is actually a National Historic Landmark now. Christina Baker Kline’s “fictional memoir” gives this historical Christina a powerful, honest, and insightful voice: the voice of a person who sees and tells it like it is–except the parts she just can’t see for herself.
You could say A.J. Jacobs is famous for asking questions that seem both important and inane, and then pursuing the answers and writing about it. That’s what he did with his best-selling book The Year of Living Biblically, a chronicle of the time he tried to obey every rule in the Bible. Now he’s done it again in his new book, It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.
The questions A.J. set out to answer here were, “Who is really my family? And what would happen if I tried to host the world’s biggest family reunion?” He’s been working on this topic for a while. Remember the Global Family Reunion in 2015? That was his brainchild. He also spoke at RootsTech in 2016.
A.J.’s voice is witty with lots of digressions, pop culture references, and a definite urban beat (NYC, specifically). He meditates on what genealogical connections mean to him and the larger story the world’s family tree tells us. Like, we’re all related, and therefore shouldn’t we get along better? But with the quick disclaimer that he’s not inviting us all over for New Year’s brunch. He did that already at the Global Family Reunion–which he reports on in detail. (Did it succeed? Did it fail? I’ve been wondering myself since 2015). In the appendix, he recommends all kinds of genealogy how-to resources, including Genealogy Gems.
If you yourself are somewhat relaxed and perhaps even a little irreverent about your genealogy hobby, you’ll likely really enjoy this book. What about the more earnest family historians? It’s still worth a glimpse into how others see us. A.J. comes peeking into the world of genealogy ready to crack jokes. And he does plenty of that. But he also comes away with a great deal of respect for the stories and relationships that can–and should, he says–bring us closer together.
3. Shannon by Frank Delaney
This isn’t a new book this year–it’s a classic I only recently discovered and can’t recommend more enthusiastically! I listened to the audiobook version, which the author narrates himself with great skill. Now I’m going to buy the print version so I can re-read, underline, and dog-ear all the passages that made me swoon. Oh. My. Goodness. Frank Delaney is a MASTER storyteller. He crafts every sentence, every image. You can practically see the story lines unfold, hear every action, smell it. I gasped, I cried, I laughed–all out loud in the car as I listened.
Shannon is a stunning tale: Father Shannon, an American Catholic priest of Irish descent, has serious “shell-shock” trauma after serving in the trenches of World War I. His archbishop sends him on a respite trip to Ireland to travel up the Shannon River looking for his family roots. He lands in the middle of an Irish Civil War—but also encounters person after person who helps him rediscover his faith in humanity and the restorative balm of daily life. Meanwhile, intrigue is afoot within his home archdiocese. A killer, who has his own traumatic backstory in Ireland, is dispatched to make sure Father Shannon never returns home. Their stories converge in a place of love, but also far too close to a place of pain. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about it. Read it or listen–and then clear a spot on your reading list for his epic novel, Ireland, which I read immediately after this one and also loved.
Genealogy Book Club: It’s All about YOU
The Genealogy Gems Book Club is a service we provide the genealogy community because we love giving you more to talk and think about! We handpick our favorite mainstream fiction and nonfiction books that have great genealogy themes, such as someone searching out their family history, the complexities of family relationships, and the fascinating times and places our ancestors experienced.
As a special bonus, we sometimes invite authors of our Book Club titles to join us on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast, available by subscription. It’s so fun to hear my favorite authors gush about the same kinds of topics I love! Hear from beloved and best-selling writers like Fannie Flagg, Annie Barrows, Helen Simonson, Lalita Tademy, and a favorite of genealogists around the world, Nathan Dylan Goodwin. Click here to see our full book list and where you can hear these interviews.