Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Micro-History of the Common Man

One of the triumphs of genealogy in our current day, I think, is that it interjects into the stream of human history the story of the common man. We may not be part of the central arc of destiny in what we do in our everyday lives, but our stories are worthy of remembrance by at least somebody. The call to research our family history is a call to preserve the memory of those who were important in our own lives.

Perhaps it is thanks to the holiday season that I have been reminiscing about such specific micro-histories lately. Memories of how specific relatives preserved the traditions of Christmas and New Year's Day celebrations naturally come back to mind during this annual season.

Although I'm not conscious of ethnic influences upon my family's traditions, it was delightful, as our younger generation grew up and married, to hear how in-laws' favorite holiday gestures came to be part of the Christmas celebration in various parts of our extended family. Finding the green pickle hidden in the Christmas tree, for instance, was never part of my growing-up years, but a fun addition from an older family member with a Norwegian heritage. (How did this Norwegian descendant stumble upon a supposedly German tradition? Who knows—that attribution is likely apocryphal—but we still have the pickle ornament she gave our family, years ago.

Regional differences and religious differences all became part of the mosaic of our extended family, thanks to insertions of those micro-histories that blended together to create our home. The Irish Catholics who celebrated Christmas Eve somehow peacefully co-exist with the Scottish Protestants who awoke to a bright Christmas morning. The palm trees and balmy breezes of Christmas in Florida somehow merged with the shivering delights of icicles and white Christmases in frosty New York and Chicago.

Some of these traditions have become so entangled in the modern morphing process that it is hard to trace them to their origins. I can't say which, if any, of our holiday traditions are owing to my father's Polish roots, and my mother's colonial roots are so far removed from their fatherland in northern Europe as to be nearly untraceable, but at least I can follow the bloodline back through the last few centuries, thanks to the disciplines I've learned through training in genealogical research.

Some of us have made that gifting of genealogical prowess into literal Christmas presents. Some, on Christmas morning—or, for those of you who prefer the Christmas Eve celebration style, the preceding night—will be opening up packages filled with memorabilia of ancestors no longer forgotten. Perhaps there will be a memento incorporating the hundred year old photograph of great-grandparents. Or a calendar documenting the important points in a family's history. Some may even have turned that family story into literal book form, publishing it to share with the wider public as well as our own siblings and children.

After all, if we—or our distant cousins—don't preserve those stories of the quiet ceremony in which our Margaret Flannery was wed to Denis Tully in 1820s County Tipperary, Ireland, who will? It is we who will convert the names in those crumbling civil records and passenger lists into comprehensible narratives.

Face it: no one other than the descendants of these insignificant commoners would be up to the task of wading through the minutiae of generations long gone. But in doing so, we preserve stories that would otherwise never be told. And, like the mosaic of history, we will add the points of color—or smudges of drabness—that provide personal nuance to the shadows of history.

Above: "Street Scene," undated oil on canvas by Hungarian artist Antal Berkes (1874-1938); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I love that last paragraph. So well written!

    1. Thank you, Iggy. This is something that has been so important to me--encouraging people to preserve what they know of their own family's history.


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