This has been one of my favorite questions for the past 50 years. I was chatting with a colleague at a holiday party after work recently. She said, I remember Bruce what you shared about your work as a Personal Historian? Yes, I explained, we record people’s life stories and help them to preserve and shared them with loved ones.
She then asked, you were telling me about how I could capture stories from my aunt. What questions should I ask her and how should I record it? I shared, “Well, first ask her about her earliest memories. To record, you can use the voice recording app on your smart phone, or buy a digital voice recorder. These cost about $90 or so. You can download and save the recordings on your computer. So, when your aunt calls, you can receive the call on your iPad and then start recording. I shared several other sample questions, and then I shared one of my favorites – How did you celebrate Christmas?
As I shared earlier, I have used this one many, many times with personal history clients and with family members, some now long gone. The holidays or Christmas are a great time to share and record family memories.
As I look across my living room I see my mother-in-law’s Christmas tree decorated with perhaps 100 ornaments that we have collected. Most have a special story – the pink one from Bermuda, the trolley from San Francisco, the round ornament with the great image of a bird we bought with my father-in-law at that birders’ shop on Cape Cod.
The Christmas season is a great time admire an ornament and ask, “Is there a story behind that ornament?” Perhaps it is old, a child’s photo from an early Christmas or an ornament that has been passed down through the family for two or three generations.
Some of the ornaments were presents from a lifelong friend. “Tell me about your friend, where did you meet?”
While you are visiting friends during the holidays you may be offered cookies or other treats. “This tastes great, what is this cookie called? Do you have any special memories of making cookies with your mom? What did you make? What did it smell like?”
For me, music has always been part of my life. This is especially true during the Advent Season. As a teenager, I would go caroling with a group from my church. We would walk around New Freedom and stop and carol at the homes of shut-ins, people who could not easily get out to church. It was often cold, but it was joyous. Sometimes we just sang, received thanks, smiles and then we moved on. Quite often though, we were invited in for cookies or a cup of cider or hot chocolate. We visited and warmed up a bit but had to move on, we still had quite a few stops and more carols to sing. “Do you have any special traditions that you and your friends did every year? Do you have a favorite Christmas carol?
When I was growing up my grandmother lived nearby. My grandmother owned a farm going down the hill from her house. She lived in a regular house at the top of the hill, but there was a farm-house and a big barn down the farm lane. To the right of the barn, she, my dad and my uncles had planted a grove of pine trees to prevent a steep section of the hill from eroding.
One of my special memories was going down the hill with my dad and one or more of my brothers and picking out our Christmas tree from the pine grove. This was a big thrill. My father still has the same saw, hanging in his shed, that we used to cut down those trees decades ago. I remember the fresh scent of the pine needles and the pine sap that would always get on our hands and our coats. We would help dad carry or drag the tree out of the wood to the car. We would also cut sprigs of pine boughs and holly that my mom would use to decorate our home. “How did you decorate your home for the holidays?”
We would go over to my grandmother’s house a week or two before Christmas and set up her Christmas tree, we got out her ornaments, the lights, perhaps some garlands and tinsel.
On Christmas Day, we would wake up early at our house. We would run down the stairs to get our stockings, they were hand-knitted by one of my aunts. We were allowed to open these early, before my parents were up and ready for breakfast. There always was a comic book or a classic comics book stuffed in the top of the stocking. Since I was one of four brothers, we would always read ours first and then trade them around. This was a brilliant “delaying” tactic by my parents, to keep us quiet and engaged for a while so they could grab five more minutes of sleep, get a cup of coffee or tea, brush their teeth, and get a few special treats ready for Christmas breakfast. It also helped to distract us from those “other” presents piled around the tree. “What was it like when you woke up Christmas morning?”
We had a great time opening presents as a family, then later around eleven o’clock my parents would drop my three brothers and me off at my grandmother’s house. I suspect this was to allow mom time to prepare food for Christmas dinner and dad some time to clear away the debris from the unwrapping, hmmm… what did they do with those two hours while we were at grandmother’s? Perhaps this is a new question I need to ask my parents?
My grandmother would always have a few presents for us around her tree. Sometimes my aunt Mary would be up visiting with grandmother for the holidays, so she would be part of the celebrations. She liked to travel, so there might be a small gift, a toy from another country that we would enjoy throughout the day. After opening gifts, my grandmother served the best sandwiches, some type of tender melt-in-your-mouth beef on buttered bread with the crusts cut off. I can still taste them. “Did you have other relatives and family living nearby? Did you celebrate together during the holidays?”
Later in day we would have a gathering of three families, our family, my dad’s brother’s family, my dad’s first cousin’s family and of course my grandmother and aunt Mary. We would rotate each year which family would host Christmas dinner. Each family would bring special dishes, the host family would provide turkey and dressing. The ten children would spend time together and the eight adults would gather, perhaps to share memories of Christmas’s past. This is when I wish I had my digital recorder back in the 1960s and 70s and perhaps a camera and a camcorder.
The good news is that I have been actively recording the Christmas and holiday memories of my parents and my extended family in more recent years. Perhaps this season is a good time for you to ask your friends and loved ones, “How did you celebrate Christmas?”
For us it is great to have our kids home from college and grad school. We did some shopping together, we saw a movie together, we catch up on each other’s news, retell stories from the past year, and chat about future plans – what’s next? My son played a few songs on the bassoon while I hummed a few Christmas carols. We will have a few upcoming holiday gatherings with friends and family… hmmm… I wonder when I need to put the ham in the oven tomorrow?
I hope each of you similarly takes time to celebrate the holidays, to visit with friends and family, and to capture and share memories.
Happy Holidays and best wishes for a great new year.
Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian with Summoose Tales, email@example.com. He is a board member and serves as the Regions and Chapters Director of the Association of Personal Historians