Family History Gift Ideas

by Juliana Smith

Every year it seems to come earlier. I’m still taking down Halloween decorations and the stores are already filled with holiday decorations. One local radio station has already changed its format over to all holiday music. I’ve forbidden my daughter to play that station until I’ve had a chance to begin my shopping.

I’m kind of like Pavlov’s dog, in that when I start hearing Christmas music, I feel like I should be done with my shopping, or at least have a good start. I’m just not there yet.

But in truth, we still have time, and with a little forethought, we can come up with some truly thoughtful gifts–perhaps some with a touch of family history. Here are a few ideas that may help you get a start on your holiday season shopping. 

Copies of old photographs of shared ancestors make nice, inexpensive gifts. Put a photo in a nice frame and it’s ready for the recipient to display. You can take it a step further and write a brief biography of the person to slip in behind the photograph or tape to the back of the frame. This will make the gift even more significant and you might even spark an interest in learning more about the family’s history. As an added bonus, sharing these heirlooms through copies helps ensure that the images will live on for generations.

Don’t just limit yourself to photos of people. For my birthday this year, I asked my dad to share some of his photography with me. He had taken pictures of places in Ireland and Hungary that he had visited–places where my ancestral roots lie. The photos are doubly special because he took them and they make a beautiful display along my stairs.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have ancestrally significant photographs, there is a collection of prints available on CD-ROM from the Ancestry Store, called Our History in Images. 
It contains more than 3,000 photos, maps, charts, and diagrams from throughout U.S. history. All of the images are in the public domain and can be reproduced, or prints can be purchased through the Ancestry Store. Many of the maps are bird’s-eye views and I found a nice one of New York and Brooklyn that might make it on my Christmas wish list. There are also images from conflicts in U.S. history going back to the American Revolution. More prints are for sale in the Ancestry Store as well. 

You can also share your photographs using other mediums. Today’s technology allows us to create slideshows on CDs or DVDs that can easily be shared with family members and also create an added attraction at family get-togethers. The other day, I had the chance to play around with the standard edition of Passage Express for Family Tree Maker 
and found it to be user-friendly. I liked it so much I’ll probably purchase the upgrade for $19.95, which will add more options, like the ability to add narration or music.

Photos can also be transferred to fabric using printable fabric sheets, which can be made into quilts and other items. My sister made a beautiful pillow for my mother with a photograph of her mother on it a few years ago that has me green with envy. For those of you like me, who didn’t inherit the “crafty gene,” there are also services out there that will do the work for you.

I’m fortunate in that I’m able to spend the holidays with my parents, and although my husband has a brother in the area, his mother and other siblings live in other states. Every year I try to recreate some of his family recipes and some regional favorites for our holiday meals. Sometimes it goes well; sometimes not so much.

One of my husband’s family favorites is “scrapple,” a pork-based breakfast food with roots in eastern Pennsylvania. Made from pork and corn meal, it’s not available at stores here in the Midwest, so I thought it would be nice to make it using a recipe I found on the Internet. I’m not quite sure where I went wrong, but suffice it to say, the congealed mass that I created ended up in the garbage. Even the dog looked at me as if to say, “What the heck is that?” Years later, I found a canned version that I could order online and that was much better.

Traditional family recipes can also make great gifts. While no one has been able to duplicate my grandmother’s cheese kuchen, we have come close a few times. For the past couple of years, my daughter and I recreated my mother-in-law’s gingersnap cookies to my husband’s delight, and we packaged up some from my brother-in-law’s family as well.

I have a collection of recipes from my mother-in-law, and more recently my husband inherited an old recipe book from his grandmother as well. This holiday season we’ll be going through it to recreate more dishes from his side of the family.

Recipe books themselves can be great gifts. Every year my sisters and I are constantly phoning each other for a copy of this recipe or that. This year I hope to digitize many of our recipes and put them in binders for all of us to keep. My husband and I plan to do the same with the cookbooks he inherited. Sharing these family recipes helps keep family traditions alive and strong, and digitizing them nowadays is easier than ever. You can scan originals, complete with handwritten notes, or you can type them into a word processor where they can be filed electronically as well. There are even programs like MasterCook that do some of the work for you and can give you nutritional and calorie breakdowns for your old recipes. (Although there are a few in our cookbook for which I’d rather not know the calorie counts!)

As we move into the holiday season, it’s time to pull out those old ornaments. Small frames with photographs of ancestors or holidays past and adorned with a bow and an ornament hook can make for nice, small inexpensive gifts.

Make copies of family photographs and decoupage them onto boxes for a unique gift wrap that is a gift in itself.

For Kids
The holidays are a great time to get children interested in family history too. Gather some of your funniest photographs from your childhood and put them in a scrapbook and write stories about the memories that each photograph brings back. They’ll have fun laughing at the “funny clothes” you wore and the hairstyles, and it opens the opportunity for dialogue, which is always a good thing.

Write up even those stories for which you don’t have a photograph. My mother’s story about how a monkey in a restaurant in Mexico stole her yellow scarf has her grandchildren in stitches every time she tells it. They love to hear how it would wrap itself up in the scarf and scamper to the far side of the cage, and then hold it out, taunting her, “Eee-ee-ee!”

Books like Grandma’s Memory Book are also helpful in triggering memories that can be shared with the younger generation.

Even fictional stories that have been passed on can be recorded and passed on as heirlooms. Another story my mom shares with the grandchildren, is about a fictional train trip, where we pick up family members at each stop. It culminates with a dinner in New York, where everyone orders a different color Jell-o and an accident caused by dogs running into the restaurant results in everyone slipping and sliding, covered with the multi-colored Jell-o. The kids love it and beg for it to be told over and over again.

Also give them a chance to be the storyteller. Scrapbook supplies can get children interested in documenting their own personal history–a great first step for budding family historians!

What Are Your Ideas?
These are just a few ideas, and I have to admit, writing this column has put me a bit more in the spirit of the holidays. Maybe it’s time to turn that radio station on after all!

What are your family history gift ideas? Share them in the comments section, or send them to me at Maybe we can run some in a follow-up article before the holidays.

Still not in the holiday spirit? Read on. Maureen’s article today has some great ideas for optimizing the holidays for family history results!

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

7 thoughts on “Family History Gift Ideas

  1. Great article! I keep trying to think of ways to personalize the holidays for our grandkids, who only see the hyped or televised things. I have a customer who says her son takes all the old baby spoons, baby shoes, etc and put them on their Christmas tree. I thought that was a great way to get stories started about his own little shoe, compared to his grandson’s little shoe, etc. That would tie in exactly with the small pictures of their grandparents and g-grandparents.

  2. If your attempt to make scrapple resulted in a “concealed mass” you probably got it right.

  3. Both of my parents, and the previous 5 generations before them, grew up in Philadelphia so to hear “scrapple” mentioned, instantly brought back memories. Even though I’m now in Tucson, AZ, in some grocery stores in specialty areas, I can get scrapple and do enjoy it. Thanks for bringing me a “grin” for the day!

  4. We had quite a large family and some of them would always call me for this or that recipe. So I decided to put these recipes and other family favorites of old ones passed down through several generations, along with pictures of the people they came from, and little comments and memories into a recipe book for Christmas last year. I even asked each family member about their favorite food memories growing up and included them in the back of the book. It may have been a lot of work, but it was sure worth it. Everyone absolutely loved it! As I have been doing genealogy research–I made it a two part project and they will be getting a book with the family tree/history this year. If you can do a recipe book like this–go for it! A great gift to treasure!

  5. I made a living history journal a couple years back for my grandmother. I printed out a ton of questions (I found them online somewhere and made appropriate changes). I made each question a different color and font to jazz it up a bit. I then cut them into strips and put them into a decorated mason jar. The questions were things like “What is your favorite memory of your brother?”, “What games did you play as a child?”, “How much did an Ice Cream cone cost when you were a kid?”, “What jobs did you hold in your youth?”, etc. It was a hit! During our weekly phone conversations she would answer the question and I would take notes. It was a great bonding experience for us even though I had moved away from home.

  6. For Christmas ideas- I have had the good fortune to be the holder to have Memorial Books from the passing of my father, my maternal grandmother & grandfather and both of her parents as well as the 50th anniversay of my parents. I know that both of my sisters would also like to have them. I decided to embark on the task of duplicating them so that each of us has a copy. I rotate each Christmas who will get the original and that way we can each have an equal share. Some I can do on my own printer, such as making copies of news clippings and photos, but the books themselves take searching for special papers and a professional printer like Kinkos or the local office supply store. The people that run these places have been of great help and even enjoyed doing this project. It can be a little expensive to duplicate the cover papers and the books with a lot a pages. To me however it is worth it to be able to share and keep these treasures at the same time.


  7. One of my early memories from my childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee is of my grandfather making what he called “panhas,” which I later learned is scrapple. His father was from Yorkshire, but his mother’s family came from eastern Pennsylvania. According to, “panhas” comes from the German dialectical pann (pan) + has (hare). I still make the stuff today using my grandfather’s recipe — much to my wife’s chagrin.

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