Tuesday, December 6, 2016

About Those Christmas Letters . . .


I have a confession to make. Remember all those letters sent out, stuffed inside Christmas cards—or maybe just unceremoniously stuffed into a business envelope—to deliver holiday greetings to family and friends? Yeah, the ones where you bragged about the highlights of your family's year? Well, if I've been on your mailing list, I've kept them all. Every. Single. One.

I've also kept every newsy birthday card, Easter card, Thanksgiving card, or just-saying-hi card. Why? If there was any news included on what your family was up to, I wanted to keep it.

Someday, I promised myself, I would go back and glean all the high points—the ones that would be most pertinent to a family historian.

Depending on the source of the greeting card, the details might have been quite extensive. I have the names and birth dates of each and every great-grandchild—and, eventually, great-greats—of one aunt and uncle. Those entries, you can be sure, made it into the family tree records almost immediately. A cousin from the other side of the family always sends photos of the extended family and the itinerary for the past year's extensive travels. Others send details on the children as they grow up, or the hobbies they enjoyed, or the family they visited.

Each letter, alone, might seem rather mundane to those outside the family. It's no wonder so many people make fun of the annual Christmas-letter tradition.

Taken in the aggregate, however, those letters add up to a fuller picture of your family. They catalog relationships, new arrivals, sad departures. Above all, they showcase what the sender considers to be high points in the story line of one particular family—and how the author felt about those events. Taken all together, they make up the mosaic of your extended line.

Admittedly, this becomes a research gift only if you foresaw this as a strategy years ago. But don't let that ace you out of the process. If you are the recipient of newsy notes such as these Christmas letters, next time you have the chance, slip them into a file folder—or scan them and save the digitized record—and begin your collection of your extended family's story.

Trust me, ten years from now, you'll never remember all the details otherwise. But if you preserve the record, you will always have it at your fingertips to consult, should you ever need to reconstruct your family's story. It's those little details, in your family's own voice, that breathe life into what otherwise might be nothing more than a monotonous litany of names, places and dates.



Above: "Winter Landscape With Skaters," oil on panel circa 1608 by Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

6 comments:

  1. :-)

    Great idea. I am starting now.

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    1. Great, Iggy! The first step is one of the most important ones. But there's a payoff for the follow through: it's great to get to look back and remember, after a while...

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  2. I am overflowing with Christmas Letters and photos from over the years. Right now they are in a file cabinet but I hope to get then in page protectors and three ring binders after the first of the year...it is on my list. I have also saved grandchildren cards and notes and other "paper" memories and they are getting organized too! I never thought of it being family history but it certainly is! :)

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    1. Oh, it most definitely is family history, Far Side! And think of how fun it will be for your family when those grandchildren's grandchildren get to see what you have saved!

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  3. When I went home to France this summer, my mother gave me back all the letters I had written before our military family finally settled and we started calling each other instead of writing (what a mistake this has been!!!) I cannot believe all the stuff I forgot of my own life all over the US and Overseas. My mother really gave me a great gift by giving me back my own words. Annick H.

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    1. What a wonderful gift that turned out to be, Annick--especially considering all the detail you must have packed into each letter.

      I've often been jealous of researchers who could pull out a packet of letters saved from great-grandparents--or earlier--which helped comprise a lively report of the daily lives of their ancestors. Jealous, that is, until I realize what a gift we unthinkingly let slip through our fingers when we don't remember to save the details from our lives now--or worse, don't even take the opportunity to document our days as we pass through them.

      Not many of us keep journals any more. Our lives become so ephemeral, just by not taking note of the mundane. We're glad to have shed the "duty" of keeping in touch via letter-writing, but forget at what price we gain that extra free time.

      How wonderful for you that your mother saw things differently. In the aggregate, that litany of "mundane" activities of daily life became a treasure.

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