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Genealogy Lessons Learned While Decorating the Christmas Tree

1.  Location is key.

Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells

Some ornaments must be hung in specific places – in front of a light, deep in the tree, near the end of a branch – for best effect.  If you don’t put them in the right place, the tree can look wonky.  Similarly, you can’t force an ancestor into your tree in the wrong place.  Don’t try to make your Uncle Jim his own grandfather.  Watch those dates.  And if great-grandmother Mary lived in Rockville, Virginia all her life, but isn’t there in the 1900 census, you have some investigating to do!  Don’t assume she was just left out.  Maybe she was in a place other than the one you expect.

2.  Sometimes, the old, cracked, and broken are the most interesting.

Ornament from my parents' first tree

Ornament from my parents’ first tree

Sure, all the pretty ornaments are great, and can make your tree look quite elegant.  But the most meaningful are the old ones, which are gonna show a little loving wear and tear.  Memberships in the DAR and the First Families of Virginia are terrific – good for you!  But come on, the story about your great-aunt’s first husband getting shot in a card game is way more interesting (true story from a friend’s genealogy).

3.  There’s always gonna be a blank spot you just can’t fill.

The blank spot

The blank spot

No tree is perfect.  The branches don’t always form a perfect pyramid for you to decorate.  And you don’t always have an ornament that just fits that weird gap.  I have two of those gaps in my family tree (known in the genealogy world as a brick wall, but that term doesn’t fit my Christmas tree metaphor).  Keep searching … somewhere, someday, you will find the perfect ornament for that spot.

4.  Don’t ignore the back of the tree.

Back of the Tree

Back of the Tree

Unless your tree sits in the center of your room, you are surely tempted not to decorate the back.  Who’s gonna see it?  Remember, though, that trees aren’t solid things.  You can see through the branches to other branches, and light shines from the back to the front.  Sometimes, bits of information you deem unimportant can cast illumination on something that’s critical to your immediate search.  Don’t ignore any of it.

5.  Sometimes, you have to start all over.

2012 tree, 2.0

2012 tree, 2.0

Last Tuesday, I came down with bronchitis.  After spending the better part of three days in bed, I came downstairs to find that all of the lights had gone out on our fully decorated tree, except for one strand in the back on the bottom.  My poor husband has been working in overdrive, taking care of me and several projects from work, so I just couldn’t ask him to do anything about it, but I was crushed.  Finally, yesterday afternoon, I dragged myself off the sofa, un-decorated half the tree and found the dead strand.  We re-strung a working strand, and ta-daa! Lovely tree once more.  Had to re-decorate, but it’s all pretty and sparkly again.  I think my metaphor is clear here, yes ???

6.  Some of my ornaments are really goofy, but I love them.

Cowboys ornaments

Cowboys ornaments

Garlic ornament - yes, garlic!

Garlic ornament – yes, garlic!

Spider web - from my grandmother, when I worked at Univ. of Richmond

Spider web – from my grandmother, when I worked at Univ. of Richmond

I have several ornaments from a unicorn phase in my twenties.  I also have a bunch of Dallas Cowboys ornaments … what?? You know you have your team on your tree somewhere.  Our family has a beloved ornament that is a horse’s … ummm … rear end, painted on a big sand dollar.  But every one of those ornaments goes on the tree every year, because they are MINE!  They represent who I am, and who I was, and where I was, and who loved me enough to get me something small when they were on vacation.  Likewise, my family tree may not be dramatic or noteworthy, but they are mine.  Salt-of-the-earth farmers in Virginia, some of whom fought for their country, and some who just lived basic, everyday lives.  Nothing shiny or sparkly, but very special to me.

7.  My grandma’s ornaments are my favorites.

Handmade by Grandma, #1

Handmade by Grandma, #1

Handmade by Grandma, #2

Handmade by Grandma, #2

Handmade by Grandma, #3

Handmade by Grandma, #3

No real genealogy point here … just the warm feelings I get when I look at the three ornaments my grandmother, Irma Frances Elliott Shelton, made for me.

Merry Christmas, y’all ….

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