Making the Most of Holiday Opportunities

Copies of family photographs in protective sleeves. Check.

Laptop with family history data. Check.

Digital recorder for taping the family sharing memories. Check.

Interrogation lamp so we can finally get Aunt Delilah to crack and spill those family secrets. Check.

OK, maybe that last one’s going a bit too far, but when you’re the family historian, your pre-holiday checklist is probably going to be a little different than that of others. You know that family get-togethers are the best place to find answers to your family history mysteries.

Whether you are planning on conducting formal interviews or just a little discreet prying, a little pre-planning can go a long way. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your time with family.

  • Make some time to review your family tree. Look at what you’ve learned this past year and what you still need to know. Is there a family member who might hold the key to that mystery you’ve been working on? Perhaps sharing a recent find will prompt a memory that gets you on the road to discovery.
  • If you’re planning a formal interview, try to include some fun questions. Instead of asking what month great-grandma died, ask for memories of the funeral? Who was there? Known death dates of those in attendance, or knowing who would have been available to attend the event at that time, might help narrow down the time frame. What was the weather like? Was it summer or winter? Was it around a holiday? If the event took place at a home, where was it? This information, coupled with the facts found in directories, can help you determine what years your family lived in a residence. Go for more than just names and dates. Flesh out your family tree with childhood memories by asking questions like those on this list in the Ancestry.com Library. 
  • Make sure your online tree or software has the most current information and attach records. While the mere sight of a pedigree chart can send some relatives running for cover, who can resist a photograph or the passenger arrival record of your immigrant ancestor?
  • Make a “Favorites List” for the kids (and the grown-ups). There’s a sample list here in the Ancestry.com Library. If you’ve done this in the past, bring out copies of past lists too. Now that they’re “all grown up,” the kids will get a kick out of seeing what their favorite songs, stars, and books were five years ago.
  • If you take notes during an interview or while the family is swapping stories, make sure you go back and re-write your notes as soon as possible. If you wait too long (and have handwriting like mine!) you may find yourself looking at your notes months down the road wondering "Who wrote this gibberish?"
  • Family stories can become garbled over time. Ask different family members what they remember of the story. Then compare the different versions and look for common threads. You can read more about this in last week’s column.
  • Take time to make some new memories. While family history is a wonderful way to bring your family together, make sure you catch up on the present. I hope that all of you have a wonderful holiday season!

Juliana Smith has been editing Ancestry.com newsletters for more than thirteen years and calls dibs on this year’s turkey carcass. Nothing’s better than homemade turkey soup.

Other articles in the 20 November 2011 Weekly Discovery: 

> Open the Doors to the Poorhouse for Ancestral Clues

> Family History Tip: Browsing the Census Can Pay Off 

> Photo Corner