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Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

The theme for the 113th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy is: A Charles Dickens Christmas. In the spirit of Dickens, I was visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future…

Christmas, 1971

Here’s a photo of my big brother and me on Christmas Day in 1971.  I have a unique ability to talk people into doing crazy things for the sake of photography, so in the spirit of brotherly love (just like our hometown, Philadelphia), we re-created the scene forty years later.

Christmas, 2011

The audience for the recreation shot included our parents, my brother’s wife (the photographer), and his three youngest children…who could not stop laughing.

Christmas Future

For the image of Christmas Future, we first considered using my niece and one of the nephews.  However, the one time I would not want all three kids in a picture is the one time they’d protest about not being in it, so we avoided any sibling rivalry on Christmas Day.  We thought about using our parents, which is likely what we will look like in another 30 years. But, given the fact that my brother and I are a bit younger and had difficulty not only recreating the pose, but also getting up off the floor, we decided against it or we’d still be trying to help them stand up.  I try not to envision the future too often since it rarely turns out as I plan, but I hope that in another forty years I’ll still be celebrating Christmas with my brother and his family – and some grandnieces and grandnephews and other loved ones!

[Written for the 113th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Charles Dickens Christmas]

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In the spirit of gratitude as we celebrate Thanksgiving, I’ve found Even More Things I’m thankful for on my genealogical quest:

1. Portable Scanners – My portable scanner of choice is the Flip-Pal, and I’m thankful there are devices such as these that make it easy to copy photographs and documents.  Now if I could only get one of my second cousins to let me see that box of photographs with my Flip-Pal in hand…

2. Passenger Lists – After all these years of researching, I still consider passenger arrival records to be one of the most amazing resources we have when it comes to researching immigrant ancestors.  They have it all:

drama – What happened to the passenger whose name is crossed out?

comedy – Some of the spelling errors are quite humorous!

suspense – Oh, no, they’re being held for special inquiry!

mystery – Did the guy writing this speak English? Because it looks like Greek to me.

adventure – The simple facts recorded so long ago help us envision the lives of our ancestors; they were more than just dates and names but people who dared to make a life-changing journey.

3. Geneteka – I honestly never thought I’d be able to access any foreign records online – for free!  This year I discovered Geneteka, one of several Polish sites that have birth, marriage, and death records online.  Earlier this year I found the marriage record of my great-great grandparents that took place in 1863 in the city of Warsaw. What used to take months of letter writing and payments was accomplished in minutes for free.

4. Napoleon – Why is a dictator listed among the genealogical things I’m thankful for?  Well, I may not be a fan of Napoleon’s tactics or his politics – or how they affected my ancestors’ countries – but when it comes to genealogical records in many countries, genealogists have to thank Napoleon.  He instituted what came to be called the Napoleonic Code that required vital records to be kept.  Specifically, the records were in the country’s local language in a paragraph format.  The details these paragraphs provide are amazing and offer so much more than some names and dates entered in a registry.

5. Google – Google is still the go-to search engine when it comes to basic searching for information on people, places, or things.  But Google is so much more than “just” a search engine because of all their other products.  I use Gmail to communicate with cousins (and everyone else!), Reader to read all the genealogy blogs, Documents to collaborate with other researchers, Earth and Maps to see where my ancestors lived, and Books to find obscure records.  With the exception of Blogger (I’m a WordPress fan, obviously), I’m hooked on Google’s tools.

6. SS-5 Forms (While They Lasted) – One of the best genealogical resources I’ve used has been my ancestors’ applications for Social Security, otherwise known as the SS-5 Form.  Sadly, the SSA no longer wants to provide full access to the form unless the person was born over 100 years ago.  Before this recent restriction, what an amazing treasure this form has been – how many other documents give you something in the person’s own hand that lists their parents’ names – and possibly the town of birth?

 7. Autographs – I love finding genealogical records that contain the signatures of my ancestors – their autographs! What is more personal than writing your own name? Seeing theirs gives me a very small personal sense of who they were.  I have my grandparents’ and almost all of my great-grandparents’ signatures from items such as marriage records, social security applications, and naturalization papers.  For most of my “older” records, most of my ancestors were recorded as illiterate and unable to sign for themselves, but I was pleased to find that my great-great grandfather Stanisław Piątkowski signed his own name to his marriage record in 1863 and his children’s birth records.

8. Meeting cousins through this blog – I’ve gotten to meet, both virtually and in person, several cousins.  Amazingly, I’ve found cousins from each of my grandparents’ lines. In some cases, I found them; in others, they found me all because I blogged about our common ancestor.  Now we’re email pals and Facebook friends and I’m so happy to know them all.  Not all of my cousins are on Facebook, but among my FB friends I have 1 first cousin, 6 second cousins, 2 third cousins, 3 fourth cousins, 2 of my parents’ first cousins, 3 of my parents’ second cousins, my grandfather’s first cousin, and 3 spouses of my cousins!

9. Photos from Cousins – As I said above, I’ve come in contact with many cousins since I’ve started this blog.  I’ve tried to get photographs from every one of them.  One or two have actually sent me some! One, the 82-year-old first cousin of my maternal grandfather, sent me some never-before-seen photos of my grandparents (on the left – thanks, Ed!) and my grandfather’s brothers.

10. Catholic Family History – I’m very thankful for the faith that has been passed down through my family because it has enriched my life.  This year I am also very thankful that I found several other genealogy bloggers that share my Roman Catholic faith, and together we began a new blog devoted to celebrating our Catholic family history – The Catholic Gene.

~ Happy Thanksgiving! ~

My past Thanksgiving lists (shown in brief, click on the link to read the entire post):

Things I’m Thankful for on My Genealogical Quest – 11/23/2008

  1. The Library
  2. National Archives and Records Administration
  3. The LDS
  4. Catholic Priests
  5. Rootsweb mailing lists
  6. Steve Morse
  7. Helpful strangers
  8. The genea-blogging community
  9. My ancestors
  10.  My nieces and nephews

Ten More Things I’m Thankful for on my Genealogical Quest – 11/24/2010

  1. Ancestry.com
  2. Digital cameras
  3. Genealogical Societies
  4. Genealogy Conferences
  5. Genealogy Blogs
  6. The COG
  7. Genea-friends who help me research
  8. Genea-friends
  9. The Immigrants Came Here
  10. My parents

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The following article first appeared on December 8, 2009 for my The Humor of It…Through a Different Lens column for Shades of the Departed magazine.   footnoteMaven has graciously allowed me to reprint my Humor of It articles here on What’s Past is Prologue. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ah, Christmas…it’s the most wonderful time of the year!  Or is it?  For some children, it’s the time of year to be scared to death.  First, there’s the whole threat of “being good” or else!  The mere thought of not getting any presents is certainly scary, but there is something about Christmas that isn’t all happy and jolly.  In fact, it instills more fear in young children than a Halloween haunted house – it’s Santa’s Little Workshop of Horrors and the annual photo with Santa!

Santa has a reputation of being a happy and fun kind of guy.  After all, he brings you toys for no apparent reason.  That’s a guy any child would love, right?  Then why is that big fat guy with a bushy beard so absolutely terrifying for so many children?  It’s the terror that makes the annual “photo with Santa” such a delight for adults.  Parents, determined to get that holiday photo no matter what, gratefully accept the photo even if the child has an expression of fear and terror and tears flowing like a river.  Years later these photos are funny, but one can only imagine that it wasn’t that funny at the time for all involved – the scared child, the parent who has to calm them, and poor Santa who has to withstand the screams.  I hope the malls provide ear protection with the red suit.

Here’s an exasperated Santa from 1977 who is wondering if it’s time to go home yet (or if the eggnog is nearby):

Aw, what are you crying for Sis? At least you aren't dressed the same as us! (Photo courtesy of Alleah Bucs Pointkouski)

Fast forward to 2006…the formerly terrified child is now a mom, so it’s time to take her daughter to visit Santa.  Did she not remember her own terror?  You know what they say, “Like mother, like daughter!” 

Aaaaaaahhhhh!!!!! (Photo courtesy of Alleah Bucs Pointkouski)

But, by now Grandmom knew the tricks to a happy photo – candy canes for all!  Or maybe it was Santa himself who learned this trick over the years – if the kids have something to put in their mouth like a pacifier, they aren’t nearly as loud. 

Sissy, if your hand gets near my candy cane, I'll scream bloody murder in your ear again! (Photo courtesy of Alleah Bucs Pointkouski)

By the time we reach adulthood, we really seem to forget how to think like a child.  This may be why the child’s fear of Santa comes as such a surprise to the parents.  If you’re a parent who will be taking a little one for the annual Santa photo, let me remind you of a few things.  First, no matter how happy or friendly Santa actually looks with that whole jolly persona and twinkle in his eye, there is something menacing about him.  Think about it…he sees you when you’re sleeping?  He knows when you’re awake?  That’s a bit stalkerish, don’t you think?   For years we tell our children not to talk to strangers, but there’s this apparently omnipotent dude that you see once a year and have to be nice and smile for the camera.  Mark my words – children pick up on this incongruity! 

No, Mommy, not without a candy cane! (Photo courtesy of Alleah Bucs Pointkouski)

It must be quite a challenge to be a photographer for Santa.  Even if you manage to get a nice, happy expression on the faces of the children, there’s always the distinct possibility that Santa himself may screw up your holiday photo.   After all, which is the worse or the two?  Being the frightened child who has to sit on Santa’s lap, or being Santa?  Santa, who, hour after hour and day after day, has lines and lines of children who want to see you.  Well, most of them want to see you…but then there are the few, the screaming, the scared.  It must be far worse to be Santa with a headache from all the high decibel screams than it is to be the crying child.  The children get over it with age and perhaps some therapy, but Santa has to put up with hundreds of screaming children every December.

Even if Santa doesn’t get a screamer, there’s the endless litany of “gimme” requests that’s enough to drive a teetotaller to the bottle of Jamison’s.  Every household seems to have at least one photo of Santa who looks as though he’s had a few.  But, who can blame him after all? 

Oh, crud, did this kid just pee on me? (Photo courtesy of Sheri Fenley)

Yo, Bro, let's get out of here - Mom dressed us alike again and Santa smells like booze! (Photo courtesy of Alleah Bucs Pointkouski)

What’s the secret to a good photo with Santa?  Maybe if Santa were closer in age and size, he wouldn’t be scary at all but cute and cuddly!

Mommy, I want to keep this Santa! (Photo courtesy of Alleah Bucs Pointkouski)

#

For More Fun:

If you want to see more photos of children who are scared of Santa, visit the Chicago Tribune “Scared of Santa” photo gallery.

Also, there is a collection of photos in a book called Scared of Santa: Scenes of Terror in Toyland by Denise Joyce and Nancy Watkins. (Harper Paperbacks, 2008)

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This post was originally published on December 21, 2008, and it was repeated again on the same date in 2009.  I wanted to repeat it yet again for new visitors who missed it previously.  You’ll notice that I left in the reference to Terry Thornton of Hill Country of Monroe County…a click on the link will take you to Terry’s obituary at his blog.  Terry left this earth on August 9th this year, but I really couldn’t bring myself to change this parody from how I originally wrote it (and I still have the feed to his dormant blog in my blog reader).  In 2008, Terry commented on this post with his signature line: “What FUN!” 

Santa is definitely going to put us all on the naughty list if we don’t get around to researching his family tree soon!  Merry Christmas to all!

‘Twas just days before Christmas and all through the ‘net
Bloggers were quiet, even the Graveyard Rabbit.
Some were snowed in, all covered in ice
With some frightful weather that’s really not nice.

Others were busy with presents and wrap,
While some settled in for a long winter’s nap.
But then Genea-Santa made it home from the mall
And with urgency put out a very frantic call.

“Oh genea-bloggers, can you help me so?
Someone has asked for their ancestors to know.
I’m used to toys, books, and games on the list,
My elves tried Ancestry.com and can’t get the gist.”

“Can you please help?” good Santa did ask,
“So I can complete this impossible task?”
Before Old St. Nick barely finished his post
The bloggers started to answer, from coast to coast.

First Sheri, then Jasia, and Terry from Monroe County,
Then Randy, then Lisa, and Thomas upped the bounty.
Many sources did footnoteMaven then cite,
while Donna and Becky joined in the plight.

Steve and Miriam and DearMyrtle too
Used Census and newspapers to find every last clue.
The charts were all filled and ready for Santa’s sack,
Combined we had traced twelve generations back!

Santa was impressed, the pedigree had nary a hole
“Can you help me find my folks from the North Pole?”
We said we’d try, maybe next year.
Our promise left him jolly and full of good cheer.

So he subscribed to our blogs, to join in our fun
And said he’d return when his hard work was done
Santa signed off, having found what he sought
“Merry Christmas to all, may your searching not be for naught!”

-with many apologies to and great appreciation of Mr. Clement Clarke Moore…(and apologies to the many genealogy bloggers I left out for space and rhyming constraints!)

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O Come, All Ye Bloggers

Are you ready for some Christmas carols?  Today it’s time for the esteemed tradition of Christmas blog caroling!  This great tradition was begun by footnoteMaven and continues this year as genealogy bloggers everywhere “sing” their favorite carols.  And the very best part is – you don’t have to hear us sing (trust me, if you’ve never heard  me sing, it really is a good thing). 

My carol for this year is a classic: O Come All Ye Faithful

Oh come all ye faithful,joyful and triumphant,
Oh come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the king of angels,
  Oh come let us adore him, oh come let us adore him
  Oh come let us adore him, Christ the lord.

Sing, choirs of angels, sing with exultations,
Sing all ye citizens of heav’n above.
Glory to God, in the highest
  Oh come let us adore him, oh come let us adore him
  Oh come let us adore him, Christ the lord.

Yea, Lord we greet thee, born this happy morning,
Jesus, to thee be glory giv’n
Word of the father, now In flesh appearing
  Oh come let us adore him, oh come let us adore him
  Oh come let us adore him, Christ the lord.

My favorite part is when the song is sung in Latin:  Adeste fideles, laete triumphantes, Venite, venite in Bethlehem. Natum videte, Regem anglelorum.  Venite adoremus, venite adoremus,  venite adoremus, Dominum.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Blog-Caroling of Years Past:

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This post was originally published on December 21, 2008, but I wanted to repeat it for new visitors who missed it last year. Uh-oh…we never did research the Big Guy’s ancestry – I hope we all still make the “nice” list this year!  Merry Christmas to all!

‘Twas just days before Christmas and all through the ‘net
Bloggers were quiet, even the Graveyard Rabbit.
Some were snowed in, all covered in ice
With some frightful weather that’s really not nice.

Others were busy with presents and wrap,
While some settled in for a long winter’s nap.
But then Genea-Santa made it home from the mall
And with urgency put out a very frantic call.

“Oh genea-bloggers, can you help me so?
Someone has asked for their ancestors to know.
I’m used to toys, books, and games on the list,
My elves tried Ancestry.com and can’t get the gist.”

“Can you please help?” good Santa did ask,
“So I can complete this impossible task?”
Before Old St. Nick barely finished his post
The bloggers started to answer, from coast to coast.

First Sheri, then Jasia, and Terry from Monroe County,
Then Randy, then Lisa, and Thomas upped the bounty.
Many sources did footnoteMaven then cite,
while Donna and Becky joined in the plight.

Steve and Miriam and DearMyrtle too
Used Census and newspapers to find every last clue.
The charts were all filled and ready for Santa’s sack,
Combined we had traced twelve generations back!

Santa was impressed, the pedigree had nary a hole
“Can you help me find my folks from the North Pole?”
We said we’d try, maybe next year.
Our promise left him jolly and full of good cheer.

So he subscribed to our blogs, to join in our fun
And said he’d return when his hard work was done
Santa signed off, having found what he sought
“Merry Christmas to all, may your searching not be for naught!”

-with many apologies to and great appreciation of Mr. Clement Clarke Moore…(and apologies to the many genea-bloggers I left out for space and rhyming constraints!)

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A Blog-Caroling We Will Go

Today it’s time for the esteemed (if not old) tradition of Christmas blog caroling!  This great tradition was begun by footnoteMaven and continues this year as geneabloggers everywhere “sing” their favorite carols.  First up – in the non-religious category – one of my favorite Christmas songs when I was growing up: We Need a Little Christmas!  I think I liked it because it is perky enough to get you in the mood for the holidays and uncommon enough so that you didn’t hear it every time you turned on the radio.  May I present We Need a Little Christmas (ahem) ~

Haul out the holly ~ Put up the tree before my spirit falls again

Fill up the stocking ~ I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.

For we need a little Christmas, Right this very minute

Candles in the window, Carols at the spinet

Yes, we need a little Christmas, Right this very minute

It hasn’t snowed a single flurry ~ But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry!

So climb down the chimney ~ Turn on the brightest string of light I’ve ever seen

Slice up the fruitcake ~ It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough.

For I’ve grown a little leaner, Grown a little colder

Grown a little sadder, Grown a little older

And I need a little angel, Sitting on my shoulder

Need a little Christmas now!

For we need a little music, Need a little laughter

Need a little singing, Ringing through the rafter

And we need a little snappy “Happy ever after”

Need a little Christmas now!

For religious songs, it’s hard to top my absolute favorite – last year’s Blog Caroling Choice, O Holy Night.  If I had to choose another carol, I would pick another song that you don’t hear as often as some others: Mary’s Boy Child

Long time ago in Bethlehem,
So the Holy Bible say,
Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ,
Was born on Christmas day.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
Them see a bright new shining star,
Them hear a choir sing,
The music seemed to come from afar.

`Now Joseph and his wife Mary,
Come to Bethlehem that night,
Them find no place to born her child,
Not a single room was in sight.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

By and by they find a little nook
In a stable all forlorn,
And in a manger cold and dark,
Mary’s little boy was born.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

Trumpets sound and angels sing,
Listen to what they say,
That man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

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The readers who are smiling at my subject line are of Polish descent – or they live in a city that has a big Polish population.  To my confused readers, let me explain – Dyngus Day (called Śmigus-dyngus in Polish) is a unique Polish tradition celebrated on Easter Monday.  On this day, boys get up early, sneak into girls’ houses, and douse them with a bucket of water.  Seriously!  The holiday is complicated, and like most holidays that combine pagan and Christian traditions, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But it is a great excuse to party!

Dyngus Day is a blend of both pagan and Catholic customs that has evolved through the ages to become a fun day of celebration after the hardships of Lent.  The pagan practice of the pouring of water was once a fertility rite and a symbol of purification.  But the pouring of water also has the Catholic connotation of purification through baptism.  It was on Easter Monday in 966 AD that Prince Mieszko I was baptized into the Catholic faith – and Poland became a devout Catholic nation thereafter.  The sprinkling of water on this day became a way for Poles to celebrate this event and also celebrate the Easter resurrection of Christ.

However, Dyngus Day relies more heavily on the pagan elements of Polish culture, specifically the fertility element.  The idea behind boys splashing the girls indicated that the girls who were doused would get married that year.  In fact, after being splashed, the girls would give the boys an Easter egg in return – although some sources say that eggs were given to avoid a soaking.  On Easter Tuesday, the girls would get their revenge, or get their chance to flirt depending on how you look at it, by hitting the boys with pussy willows that traditionally bloom during this time of year.

In other words, Dyngus Day is an elaborate courting ritual.

My grandmother, who was born in America to Polish parents, remembered the holiday somewhat differently.  All of the essential elements were there, but instead of the courting aspect the day was more like an opportunity to play water pranks on unsuspecting individuals!

So, whether you are trying to woo someone, chase them away, or simply laugh as you completely soak someone, Dyngus Day is a day to celebrate.  Maybe you’re celebrating the joy of Easter Week, or that Lent is finally over, or that Spring is here (if you’re lucky enough to have Spring yet where you live), or that you’ve found someone you want to marry.  Whatever the reason to celebrate today, it’s everyone’s chance to be Polish!  Happy Dyngus Day!

[Written for the 18th Edition of the Carnival of Central & Eastern European Genealogy: Easter and Passover Traditions]

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‘Twas just days before Christmas and all through the ‘net
Bloggers were quiet, even the Graveyard Rabbit.
Some were snowed in, all covered in ice
With some frightful weather that’s really not nice.

Others were busy with presents and wrap,
While some settled in for a long winter’s nap.
But then Genea-Santa made it home from the mall
And with urgency put out a very frantic call.

“Oh genea-bloggers, can you help me so?
Someone has asked for their ancestors to know.
I’m used to toys, books, and games on the list,
My elves tried Ancestry.com and can’t get the gist.”

“Can you please help?” good Santa did ask,
“So I can complete this impossible task?”
Before Old St. Nick barely finished his post
The bloggers started to answer, from coast to coast.

First Sheri, then Jasia, and Terry from Monroe County,
Then Randy, then Lisa, and Thomas upped the bounty.
Many sources did footnoteMaven then cite,
while Donna and Becky joined in the plight.

Steve and Miriam and DearMyrtle too
Used Census and newspapers to find every last clue.
The charts were all filled and ready for Santa’s sack,
Combined we had traced twelve generations back!

Santa was impressed, the pedigree had nary a hole
“Can you help me find my folks from the North Pole?”
We said we’d try, maybe next year.
Our promise left him jolly and full of good cheer.

So he subscribed to our blogs, to join in our fun
And said he’d return when his hard work was done
Santa signed off, having found what he sought
“Merry Christmas to all, may your searching not be for naught!”

-with many apologies to and great appreciation of Mr. Clement Clarke Moore…(and apologies to the many genea-bloggers I left out for space and rhyming constraints!)

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Christmas Memories

Here’s a look at some of my family’s favorite Christmas memories!

Note: This is my first attempt using Slide.  There is not as much control as I’d like, but it was a little faster than creating an avi or mpg of my own.  But, the music isn’t alwasy timed the same, so sometimes it ends perfectly at the last shot, and other times it starts repeating the photos!

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Well, it’s true what “they” say that kids today have it all.  There’s nothing like being “one-upped” by your niece.  While I was fortunate as an 8-year-old in 1975 to receive a letter from one of Santa’s elves, Ziggy, my niece Natalie received a letter from Santa himself!  Can you believe it?  I was certainly impressed!  Natalie was 6 years old.  She also received a letter the following year, so Santa must really like her! This second letter – with impeccable handwriting in a lovely purple ink – was found under the tree:

Dearest Natalie,

Your Daddy told me that you have been a very good girl this year. I have been keeping a close eye on you and I’m pleased that you are doing so well. I am especially happy with your progress in school and how well you did in soccer – especially how quickly you made new friends.

Since I am very busy this time of year, not everyone can get a special letter like this one.  But your Daddy said that you have been extra special.  Your Daddy and Alleah must love you an awful lot and think you are a very precious girl to receive a special letter from me two years in a row!

Be sure to be a good girl this year and remember to always be kind and generous to other people – remember, not everyone is as lucky as you are…

Merry Christmas!  Love,

Santa Claus

Natalie, Christmas 2001

Natalie, Christmas 2001

If Natalie wasn’t lucky enough already, the letters and presents weren’t all that Santa left behind.  One year, he forgot his sleigh bells in his rush to get to the next house!  Natalie still has them in case Santa needs them back, but so far he hasn’t asked for them. Now she can share the story of that Christmas morning with her little sister and brother.  Who knows, maybe someday they’ll be lucky, too, and get a letter from Santa.

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Well, not quite…  Just before Christmas, 1975, when I was eight years old, one afternoon the mailman delivered a curious letter marked “Special Delivery”, “Air Mail”, and the most exciting mark of all – “North Pole”!  Was it really a letter from Santa addressed to me?  No, but it was the next best thing – a letter from one of Santa’s elves, Ziggy!  The letter read as follows:

North Pole – 9 Days to Go -16 December 1975

Dear Donna,

Santa is very busy.  He asked me to write this letter because I am assigned to Philadelphia in the U.S.  Twenty years ago I worked in Spain.  Now I only work the U.S. since I learned how to read and write English.

Santa says all the kids want the same toys this year.  He promised to do the best he can do to give you what is on your list.

Do you still have that black & white cat?  Was your First Communion Day a nice one? Don’t tell any other kids about this letter because I don’t have time to write any of them and they’ll be jealous.

Felice Navidad.  No!  No!  I mean Merry Christmas!

Ziggy

The letter was printed in block lettering that looked suspiciously like my father’s.  The signature, however, did not resemble my father’s handwriting.  I was confused.  I was convinced he wrote it, but that did not diminish my belief in Santa Claus one bit!  I remember thinking, even at 8 years old, that it was nice of my parents to do that for me.  At the same time, I wondered if it was real – what if?  The black and white cat was Lou C (see “Cats Ruled This Family”).  The reason he asked about my First Communion Day was because it had only been about two weeks earlier. [Our parish priest decided our class was "not ready" in May, when First Communions are usually held.  About 160 mothers nearly had a stroke when he told our parents the new date in December.  They had visions of us freezing in our white dresses and suits.  But God and our mothers' prayers prevailed...on December 6, 1975, the temperature in Philadelphia was 57 degrees, 20+ degrees warmer than usual.  But, I digress...]

I bet you didn’t know that Santa had an elf named Ziggy.  My parents told me long before that Ziggy accompanied Santa on his visits, so it wasn’t a surprise to see the name.  Looking at the letter today with older eyes, I see a few other things.  Like it appears that Santa is running a corporation of some sort with elves assigned to different parts of the world.  He’s too busy?  Doing what – shopping?  The elves are the ones making the toys, right?  He promises to do his best? I thought you sent your letter to Santa to get what you wanted!  Apparently Santa is a slave-driver, because poor Ziggy is too busy to even write to any other kids.  And it’s a good thing he learned English, because his memory of how to say Feliz Navidad is a little rusty!

With my old(er) eyes, I guess I’ve been “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age” but like “faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance” it’s the wonderful things parents do for their children that “make glad the heart of childhood”. And that is what I see clearly!  Thanks for the memory, Ziggy.  I hope you’re not retired so you can pay a visit to my house this year.  I moved since then, and there’s no cat to welcome you, but I have a feeling you’ll visit anyway – if you’re not too busy!  [Quotes from Francis Church's letter to Virginia O'Hanlon in 1897.]

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O Night Divine

Today many genea-bloggers will go blog-caroling together by blogging about our favorite Christmas carol.  The flannel-jammied yet stylish footnoteMaven will post a round-up of all of our favorite carols.  And the best part?  You don’t have to hear us actually sing.

If I had been asked about my favorite Christmas song as I was growing up, I’m not sure what my answer what have been.  Today, I wouldn’t miss a beat before I answered – “O Holy Night”.  I like to listen to Christmas songs as I decorate or wrap presents.  Several years ago, “O Holy Night” was playing in the background (either the Mariah Carey or Celine Dion version).  I had heard the song countless times over the years, but, for the very first time, one line jumped out at me and I truly listened to it for the first time in my life.  The line that struck me was: Long lay the world in sin and error, pining, ’til He appeared and the soul felt its worth. My soul (and my eyes) flooded as I understood the meaning of those words like never before, and the beautiful, wondrous mystery of the Incarnation, the true meaning of Christmas, became clear to me.  So join with me in singing my favorite Christmas song:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels’ voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Behold your King.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

This song also has an interesting history behind it.  The words were written by Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant who wrote poetry in his spare time.  In 1847, his parish priest asked him to write a Christmas poem, and Cappeau obliged by imagining the night Christ was born.  The poem, Cantique de Noel, was written in a coach as he traveled to Paris.  When Cappeau arrived, he sought out his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to compose music to accompany it. The result? A Christmas classic!  But not immediately – the song fell out of favor as Cappeau drew away from the Church and towards the socialist movement.  An American abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight, was struck by the last verse of the song.  He translated the song into English.  The hymn was published during the Civil War and quickly became a favorite.  It’s certainly my favorite!

For more information on the song, its lyrics, and its history, visit the following sites:

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Remembering St. Nicholas

Soon that jolly, white-haired man dressed in red will visit your house at night and deliver some treats to the children that have been good.  In fact, the night he comes is tonight!  Wait, did you think I meant Santa Claus?  No, it’s time for the visit from St. Nicholas!

1914 St. Nicholas Magazine Calendar, St Nicholas Center Collection

1914 St. Nicholas Magazine Calendar, St Nicholas Center Collection

St. Nicholas lived during the 4th Century in a Greek territory that today is Turkey.  Many legends exist about his life.  Most agree that he came from a wealthy family.  After becoming orphaned, Nicholas used his wealth to help the poor and needy.  He devoted his life to God and became a bishop in the Church.  He continued to perform acts of charity, usually in secret, and he was known throughout the region for his goodness.  In giving gifts, he asked that the recipients do the same to those in need.  By the time Bishop Nicholas died, he was known as a miracle-worker, gift-giver, and a true man of God who cared about others.

It became customary around the world to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, by doing what he had done.  On the evening of December 5th, gifts would be left in secret to those in need, presumably left by the saint himself.  He would wander throughout the country and leave gifts for children.  In fact, some children would leave food for St. Nicholas’ means of travel, a donkey.

Many countries continue the celebration of St. Nicholas Day. In Germany, the area of Bavaria where my great-grandparents came from celebrated the arrival of Sankt Nikolaus. He would arrive in his bishop’s regalia with a miter and crozier and ask the children if they had been good.  Families cleaned the house and children cleaned their rooms in anticipation of his arrival!  Boots were left out, and the kindly saint would leave a gift to those who were good – or coal to those who were not.

In Poland, St. Nicholas was called Sw. Mikołaj. He also visited dressed as a bishop and an angel to help him with his sleigh full of goodies, which were usually sweets such as cookies or fruit.  He also encouraged children to be on their best behavior.  He sometimes returned on Christmas Eve with gifts the children requested in letters.

I laughed when I learned that Italy celebrates San Nicola by recalling the time they stole his earthly remains in the 11th Century and brought them to Italy.  It’s not like it sounds though, for they had a good reason!  (Though relic stealing was quite popular back then…)  The celebration of his “arrival” to Bari is celebrated in May, but he also visits children with goodies on the evening of December 5th.

Many countries have similar celebrations and traditions of the saint’s arrival.  So, what happened to him?  Did he “become” Santa Claus?  Or did Santa “replace” the bishop-saint?  In America, the blame gets distributed on the usual suspects: the Puritans, the advertising industry, and the media.  One could argue that he slowly evolved into Santa.  I don’t have anything against Santa – in fact, he’s been quite good to me over the years!  But in reading about St. Nicholas and the traditions that our ancestors celebrated made me wish he had the same PR man as Mr. Claus.  What parent wouldn’t admire a guy who gets children to clean their rooms and be good?  Sure, Santa wants you to be good, too, but St. Nicholas was more about helping those in need and sharing what we have with others.  Over the years the religious aspects of the man and the events surrounding the gift-giving seemed to have disappeared as well.  But, we can always revive the St. Nicholas tradition in our own families by spreading the news and telling the stories about him.  Nick’s stories are even more fascinating than Santa’s stories!

For more information on Saint Nicholas, his history, the evolution of Santa Claus, and how St. Nicholas Day is celebrated throughout the world, visit the wonderful site called The Saint Nicholas Center – discovering the truth about Santa Claus.  In fact, just as I noted in my recent article about the photographic reconstruction of another Nicholas, they have reconstructed what he probably looked like — familiar-looking, isn’t he?

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Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.  ~ Gilbert K. Chesterton

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My family has a tradition for the holidays that seems to be unique among all of the wonderful and varied customs that society has come to label as “Tradition”.  You see, our tradition is — we’re rather untraditional.  For me, one who greatly values customs, ritual, patterns – TRADITION – this fact was rather hard to accept.  After all, traditions are passed down through the generations.  So, where did I get my love for all things traditional when my own family really doesn’t have any traditions?  Or, is our very “untraditionalness” [sic] a tradition in and of itself?

I can’t say we’ve never done the same thing twice, because we have.  But, nothing we’ve ever done is so set in stone in the traditional sense that it meets the definition of “tradition”.  I think those of us who value traditions find comfort in them.  With traditions, we know what to expect.  There is no fear of the unknown, no fear of change.  Traditions or rituals are comforting to me for these reasons.  I was always a tradition-oriented person.  But I don’t know why, because one would think that a person develops a love of traditions from experiencing them.  In my case, that’s not true.  It’s not that my family didn’t care for traditions, they just didn’t care about them enough to adopt or preserve them.  Which left me longing for traditions!  I was jealous of families in old movies that celebrated the holidays with special foods, events, or items passed down from generation to generation.  In my family’s case, we may have adopted some customs for a few years, but it was never so dependent, so essential to the holiday that gave it the required “tradition” label.  So my memories of the holiday traditions of my family seem a little schizophrenic!

For Thanksgiving, we had a tradition of the big meal with all of the great Thanksgiving foods like roasted turkey, Mom’s stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuts, etc.  I suppose that this feels like the most “traditional” of any holiday meal to me.  But, we were not so strict about where we celebrate, or when.  For two years, we celebrated by going downtown to see a show instead of our usual meal, which we probably had, with all of the trimmings, on another day of the week instead.  Some years my brother didn’t join us, other years one of his friends or one of mine did.  One year, my parents, their friends, and my priest-friend’s mother celebrated Thanksgiving in his rectory, because it was his first holiday as a priest and he was “on call”.  Some years we ate at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, and one year at her parents’ house.  For the last few years, I have had the meal at my house.  And every other year, my oldest niece celebrates with her mother’s family, so we usually have two Thanksgiving meals so we are all together at some point.  While the food may be familiar, the locale is most decidedly not.

Christmas is the holiday most associated with traditions, but once again my family never really decided on any one thing to “adopt” forever and ever.  Meal menus changed every few years.  Sometimes gifts were exchanged on Christmas Eve, and sometimes on Christmas Day.  For several years, we’d have a Christmas movie marathon. (But not the “usual” Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life – we watched Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and Christmas in Connecticut.)  Sometimes the tree was up and the house was decorated, and sometimes it wasn’t.  For several years, my parents’ street adhered to strict decoration requirements, and the street looks fabulous as everyone had the same lights and design.  But, none of these things stayed for more than a few years.

What always stays the same?  The reason for all of the celebrating – the religious meaning of Christmas.  We’d always attend Mass, but there was no tradition as to whether it would be the Vigil, the Midnight Mass, or on Christmas Day.  Going to church was the important part, not when.

I’ve developed a few traditions on my own over the years – certain songs must be listened to, ornaments are collected as I travel, and the holiday season must be celebrated with family and friends who are like family to me.

So, we don’t do the Seven Fishes, or Wigilia, or gather around the piano to sing carols while chesnuts pop in the fire place, or bake tons of cookies every year.  All of those traditions sound like a lot of fun, but I have fun anyway in spite of not celebrating in traditional ways.  The holidays used to make me sad – perhaps I put too much stock in fancy traditions and what I did not have.  But by remembering what I have every year, and remembering the Love that makes it all possible, the Christmas holidays are truly joyous.  That is my tradition!

[Written for the 61st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Traditions!]

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vetsday08Today is Veterans Day in the United States, a day set aside to remember and honor all veterans.  I have many relatives and friends who have served in the U.S. military.  On this day, I’d like to honor my father (USN), my brother (USMC), Frank (USN), Frank’s Dad (USN), Uncle Ken (USN), cousins BG Mike (USA) and Suzanne (USAF), friends Bob (USMC), Rick (USMC), Joe (USA), Tim (USA), and Tim’s son Danny (USA), chaplains Ron (USAF), Chappy (USAF), Ralph (USA), and Sherrill (USA), and numerous bosses and co-workers over the years including active duty military and many veterans now working for the DoD as civilians.

To all of you, and especially to all active military personnel currently in harm’s way (you’re in our thoughts and prayers), I have one thing to say:

T H A N K    Y O U !

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Veterans Day is celebrated tomorrow in the United States.  The holiday was first established by President Wilson as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919.  The holiday originally celebrated the end of the “War to End All Wars” which formally ended at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.  To those of us generations removed from this war, it is difficult to realize its impact on the world.  It is estimated that nearly 20 million people died globally as a result.  At war’s end, four European empires disappeared: Russian, Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian.

Tomorrow has additional significance in Poland because it is celebrated as Independence Day – at the end of the war in 1918, Poland re-appeared on the map of Europe and became a country again for the first time in 123 years.  Józef Piłsudski became the leader of the new Poland.

I can only wonder how World War I affected my ancestors.  As far as I know, none of my ancestors served in the military during the war, although my one Polish great-grandfather volunteered to fight for Poland in Haller’s Army.  But all of my great-grandparents living in America had only immigrated ten or twenty years prior to the war – surely they had relatives and friends living near the battlefields in Europe.  My German great-grandparents were not naturalized citizens, so they had to register with the U.S. government as “enemy aliens”.  I am sure that there must have been ethnic tensions during the war where neighbors wondered about which “side” of the war German immigrants were on.  Even though my great-grandfather had American sons that would go on to serve in the U.S. military, I wonder if he had conflicted feelings about the war – his own cousins and nephews were fighting in the German military.  It would be interesting to know how he felt about the war’s end – the economic hardships that his former country was about to endure would set the stage for an even greater and tragic war.

For my three Polish great-grandfathers, there must have been great rejoicing after the war, for Poland was once again a country.  Though they were Polish, neither they nor their fathers or grandfathers were born in Poland, but instead in Russian-occupied Poland. I’d like to wish a Happy Independence Day to all of my Polish friends tomorrow!

As we know, the Great War was not the war to end all wars.  After World War II, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day and is a holiday to honor all veterans.  Tomorrow I’ll have a special message for all of my family members and friends who are veterans.

Here are posts from genealogy blogs this past week that are related to World War I research:

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