By Lisa Maddox
Too often, our holiday shopping panic leads us to that most unfortunate decision: to buy, or not to buy, that convenient trendy object when nothing else on the webpage or store shelf seems to meet the expectations of our all-too-discerning relative or friend. We succumb to that last-minute contingency gift that won’t excite the recipient, but also won’t offend them.
Meanwhile, most people these days – especially after almost two years of separation during the COVID-19 pandemic – are hoping for something entirely different for the holidays. Instead of another massage device or single-origin ecofriendly fair-trade coffee sampler, it’s likely that your friends and family want to experience something eye-opening, to make a new and lasting memory and to feel their connection to something bigger.
There may be nothing on the market these days that meets those expectations more perfectly than a custom family history project. For the past few years since leaving the CIA, I have researched and written custom family histories for dozens of families, and I’ve never seen a gift recipient smile with more genuine gratitude than after reading about their family’s unique past.
There’s something deeply impactful about knowing what our ancestors went through, why they made the decisions that resulted in our present situation and how they participated in the major events of our history. It creates a sense of family identity, it opens our eyes to the realities of the past and – perhaps most importantly – it gives families something important to talk about with each other.
It’s easy to get started. Set aside some time during your holiday to kickstart the process. Discussing ancestors and their stories is guaranteed to bring everybody together around the kitchen table with humorous family tales, teary-eyed memories and animated debates. It’s also a way to avoid prickly topics such as politics and health issues.
Here are some steps to keep in mind while organizing and pulling together your family history:
Organize photos and documents
Dig out those family photos from their various boxes, musty albums and envelopes. During your gathering, try to label and date the photos. This process inevitably will spark fun memories and stories. Make sure to record them. There are many options for preserving and displaying photos in traditional albums, online presentations and movies. Consider digitizing photos for ease of sharing and safe storage.
Interview, inquire and record
Ask those questions that always nagged you. Write down the answers and collate the information. Pull together the stories and have them published in a book or a private online website, whatever works best for your family. Start these conversations now, before you run out of time.
Get kids involved
You might be surprised by how interested kids can be about their family history. Plus, it’s likely that a kid in your broader family will have a school assignment to explore their family history and these discussions can inspire their work.
Get a subscription to one of the many online heritage research platform, such as ancestry.com or myheritage.com. Research and build your family tree by discovering vital documents, newspaper articles and travel data. Just know that this work can be technical, daunting and time consuming.
Hire someone to help
All of the above takes quite a bit of dedication, and hiring a genealogist, family historian or album creator can be a good way to ensure the project is completed and effectively documented. There are many options when considering an outside professional for your family history project, including a genealogist to help with the research, a filmmaker to create a documentary of your family’s history or a family history company that can pull together the research, photos and narratives on a private website.
The writer is founder of Family History Intelligence, a family history research and investigation service.