I have been collecting Christmas ornaments and decorations since I can remember. I helped decorate my parentsâ€™ Christmas tree and was responsible for decorating my father, mother, and sisterâ€™s tree in the early 1960s. As a result, I have listened repeatedly to the stories that were told each year about each item. The decorations have become an inherent part of our familyâ€™s holiday tradition, as have the stories about those special dishes, glasses serving plates, candlesticks, silver pieces, and other tableware and table linens that are only used once a year.
Your family has all of these important family stories and traditions in their head as part of the family lore. These are perhaps the most vividâ€”and possibly accurateâ€”memories they have.
Preserving Heirloom Origins
Several years ago, I began a project to document all of these items and related stories during the holidays. We developed a routine; we took digital photographs of each ornament, recorded its picture number on the camera in a stenographerâ€™s notebook, and then placed it on the tree. For each entry in the notebook, we simply entered which ones we had purchased or acquired from friends and such. It took a while with our personal tree ornaments and decorations.
We later uploaded all the Christmas ornament photographs and renamed them, such as Morgan001, Morgan002, Weatherly001, Weatherly002, Smith001, Smith001, Wilson001, Wilson002, etc. We then sorted the ornament photographs and printed each one onto a separate sheet of paper. Since I have collected several hundred ornaments and decorations over my fifty-five years of life as the â€œunofficialâ€ family archivist, the printouts were prodigious.
Many of you may be taking down your Christmas decorations this week. Perhaps this would be a good time to document the origins of some of your decorations.
When family members visited for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then throughout the subsequent year, I pulled out the binder and asked the question, â€œDo you recognize that ornament or decoration? If you do, what do you remember?â€™ I used my digital voice recorder to record what each relative or friend recalled. Perhaps they remembered the purchase of the ornament, or maybe they remembered where it came from. Often there were special memories by aunts and uncles of decorating their own Christmas tree. One aunt remembered a set of tarnished jingle bells as having been salvaged from her own Christmas stocking when she was six in 1921. Another great-aunt recognized a pale green, frosted glass bell about 1â€-high as having come from our great-great-grandmother, Rebecca Chapman Swords, and used on the family Christmas tree in Green County, Georgia, before the U.S. Civil War!
My Extended Collection
In the 1970s in Chicago, I had the distinct pleasure of working with a woman named Marcelle Andree Nowitt. Marcelle, born in 1900, was more than fifty years older than I was, and she was what you would call a â€œreal pistol.â€ She was incredibly intelligent and more than feisty. She was an astute judge of character, a lover of arts and culture, and an incredible lady in anyoneâ€™s estimation. Marcelle took me into her heart as a friend and confidante. One Christmas she gave me a goose egg she had made, colored on the outside, mounted on a gold-colored filigree stand, and decorated on the inside with a winter forest scene of a doe and her fawn. It was magnificent! Little did I know that she worked on these eggs–and ostrich and duck eggs–to make such winter and holiday scenes that she would sell through the venerable Marshall Field & Co. for between $60 and $100.
The following year, Marcelle made a set of a dozen Christmas tree ornaments for me. They are magnificent, even thirty-four years later. Some are satin-wrapped ornaments with gold cording and glued-on golden cherubs. Two are clear with birds and a nest. Still others are satin covered, tiny faux-pearl rope decorated, with angels.
I collected other ornaments from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago from their incredible â€œChristmas around the Worldâ€ store, and as a collector, I have acquired pieces from hundreds of places.
This doesnâ€™t include the porcelain Christmas village that often makes its appearance atop the five bookcases in the family room. Nor does it include the Christmas teddy bear collection or the wonderful Christmas snow globes, and the familyâ€™s hand-embroidered doilies, napkins, lave tablecloths, antimacassars, and other linens dating from the late 1800s.
This approach to cataloging my holiday heirlooms got my family members revved up about family history and Christmas. Everyone now wants a copy of the family Christmas ornament and decoration book that I have. They are interested in our stories and family history more than ever before. And since they have learned so much from me at this holiday season, perhaps they will come back for the much, much more I can share with them.
What About You?
What holiday items are special to you and what steps have you taken to preserve their origins? Share your stories in the Comments section of the blog.
George G. Morgan is the best-selling author of “The Official Guide to Ancestry.com” and “How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy.” George and Drew Smith produce “The Genealogy Guys” podcast each week at genealogyguys.com. George is also now teaching online genealogical workshops for Pharos Tutors at www.pharostutors.com/ and for the Continuing Education Division of the University of South Florida in Tampa at cereg.usf.edu/WebModule/reg/index.jsp?categoryId=10062. Visit his company’s website at ahaseminars.com to view his schedule of upcoming conference events.