‘There is no try’

Currier and Ives’ “The Road, Winter.”

As a family historian, you can’t help but love the holiday season. It’s a time for reconnecting with extended family, and an excellent opportunity to share everything that you have learned about your ancestral past. With a bit of tact, you can engage your relatives in genealogical discussions, coaxing out anecdotes that flesh out your research. To that end, I have assembled a list of some of my favorite holiday genealogy dos and don’ts.

Explaining DNA Testing…

It’s the big thing in genealogy right now, and there are a lot of good deals on DNA kits floating around online. The more family members you have tested, the larger and clearer the results will be.

Do: Assure your relatives that their genetic information will not affect their insurance coverage, nor be entered into a police database. Before she was tested, my grandmother had been concerned that her DNA might be used someday to incriminate one of her descendants.

Don’t: Attempt to extract your relative’s DNA from the fork they used to eat their dessert. It’s unsanitary, and Aunt Irene counts the silverware after everyone leaves.

Do: Play down the accuracy of the ethnicity pie chart before your relatives begin appropriating cultures. Scandinavian Christmas sounds fun until Uncle Bill shows up in a rented Viking costume.

Sharing what you’ve learned…

As family historians, it is our duty to ruin dinner conversation with the tales of our most recent discoveries. We also know that the dinner table is the best setting because the promise of food keeps people from walking away in the middle of the conversation.

Do: Highlight that successful trip to the archives. Don’t forget to mention where it was, how hard it was to find parking, and how many pages you could copy before they started charging.

Don’t: Bring your photograph collection. Mashed potato is difficult to get off a tintype, and next to impossible to get off a cabinet card.

Do: Be careful when discussing consanguinity. Yes, some branches of our family tree grow narrower instead of wider. An important part of studying history is not forcing twentieth- and twenty-first-century values and conceptions onto our ancestors. If your ancestry extends back to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century rural Quebec, you might avoid bringing this topic up at all.

Preparing for the future…

Remember, someone might be researching you someday. Create a paper or electronic record. The holidays are a good opportunity to get family stories in writing.

Do: Listen and record the different ways your relatives tell the same story. Like a good pie, the sum is often greater than the parts.

Don’t: Discuss estate planning and the distribution of family heirlooms. It is a strange quirk of human nature that some people don’t like to discuss what will happen to their belongings after they die. Your relatives already know that you are interested in anything with “sentimental” value. That’s how you will end up with Aunt Irene’s silverware.

But really…

Do: Be grateful for all the time you spend with family and friends this holiday season!

James Heffernan

About James Heffernan

James earned his BA in history at Boston College. Before joining the NEHGS team, he worked in the conservation department of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College and the research library at Plimoth Plantation. Propelled by his interests in genealogy and history, James spent a semester abroad at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. In addition to Slavic history, he is very interested in the history of Colonial America and 19th century Massachusetts.

11 thoughts on “‘There is no try’

  1. Thank you for this. Could you expand on the insurance issue? I am serious about this. Isn’t it niave to think that these companies will pass up a revenue source as DNA becomes widely available to be matched to medical records, research, etc.? I looked at DNA testing contracts a while ago and saw no commitment to never selling the results for matching. The growth in value of the database companies must be based on some expectation of this. Thank you.

  2. I can relate!! But the physical reaction when genealogy is mentioned is something else! Those who have no interest what so ever, is ‘the head goes down’, or they ‘eyeball roll’, oh, yes, Thank God I have one daughter who will listen and talk about the subj. the son? Nope. All he was interested in if we had connections to Samuel Clemens…….and if I couldn’t prove that, he wasn’t interested. I even gave him Churchill as an ancestral connection…….thought it would be a good replacement….so, guess what I did for his birthday this Nov? I sent for a DNA test! Private messaged him yesterday to expect one in the mail this week! No response yet…..

  3. Love the article, especially the humorous bits! Like “If your ancestry extends back to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century rural Quebec, you might avoid bringing this topic up at all.” I know a lot of other places that inbreeding is an issue as well, in Europe as well as the states. I DO tell my interested family members about such an ancestral family in southeast Indiana, but wouldn’t bring it up at Thanksgiving dinner.

  4. My Thanksgiving “family” is an assemblage of folks most of whose relatives live too far away to travel. It started as a group of college friends, grew to include spouses, siblings, parents and children, plus whoever else is around that we can drag in. There’s a plate for everyone. Conversation ranges over a wide area. There are a few of us interested in genealogy, and each year is an opportunity to catch up on our latest finds, Noticed we were abandoned to the far end of the room before dinner, and looks of relief that we did NOT talk about genealogy during the meal. Well, mostly not. There were the well-timed “Pass the gravy, please?” interruptions. I think they did it on purpose….

  5. Traced my ancestry all the way back to 1664 when Tristram Dodge founded Block Island. Extremely interesting branch of one part if my family.

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