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Holiday traditions connect us closer to our ancestors more than we realize. But why? Is it because they mean something to us personally or because we’ve always done them that way?  Or just because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings should we vier off course and do something different?

When I was little (long, long time ago), the tree was always put up on Christmas Eve after I went to bed and we believed that Santa Claus brought the tree with all the presents. Then my brother and I took the tree down on New Year‘s Day. When my daughter was little I did the same thing. She also thought Santa brought the tree with all the presents.

Now she is a parent herself and her family decorates their tree early. She and her husband sip hot cocoa between attaching the ornaments. Plus they leave some ornaments for their son to put on the tree with them the next day.  She has begun a Christmas tradition of her own.

Some traditions go way, way back into our family history and the origins have long been forgotten.  Being mostly German we have thpicklee pickle ornament tradition which supposedly meant that any child finding the pickle ornament got a special present. We never did that one though. I’ve tried to find a vintage pickle ornament for my own tree but they are costly and so far I have not popped for the price.

Swedish tradition dictates the sprinkling of bird seed in front of the house on Christmas Day for good luck.

Italians have a good tradition of seafood on Christmas. Six or seven courses of different fish. Sounds yummy to me.

Holding money in your hand at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s indicated prosperity throughout the year.

Having one parent from Virginia but living in the north I believe we  were the only citizens of Philadelphia who ate black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck throughout the new year.  Every ethnic group and geographical location has some tradition for the holidays.

One tradition I heard of recently was that of a new wife cutting off the end of the Christmas ham before baking it. When asked why, the answer was, “We always do it that way. It’s tradition.”  The young husband asked his mother-in-law “Why cut off the end of the ham?” The same answer “We always do it that way, it’s tradition.” Wanting to know the root of this tradition and its significance, the young husband then asked his wife’s grandmother. Surely she would know how the tradition came about. “Sure,” she said. “My pan was too small for the ham.”
Just a joke of course but you see how some holiday traditions mean something, other mean nothing. Our traditions and our ancestors’ traditions are important to continue and encourage on our younger generations. They remind us of who we are and where we came from. After all, how could I possibly start my new year without my black eyed peas?

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I have to admit, I’m not a real good genealogist. So far I haven’t checked out any wills, deeds, property sales or anything like that. And I hop around a lot. When I get bored not finding anything on one ancestor I hop over to research another. All the books tell you not to do that. It’s a genealogy no-no. But I have a lot of fun with my family research. I mean, it’s all out there somewhere and as far as all that boring stuff is concerned, it’s not going anywhere. I am confident that it will still be there if I ever get around to going after it.

But talking to people, finding obscure jewels of gossip and factoids about the family makes me smile. It’s the detective spirit in me I guess. I love a good mystery. Here’s one thing I did early on in my journey that really paid off. At the time I didn’t have a lot of information. I knew where my grandparents were buried because I’d been to several family funerals there. My father is buried alongside them and his were the only dates I had.  One Saturday afternoon I got out my paper with the names on it and called the Blandford Cemetery office in Petersburg, Virginia. A very nice lady named Jackie answered the phone and I asked her if by any chance I could get some information from their files. She said “sure”.

I gave her the surname I was looking for and boy, did she give it to me! Every person in that cemetery with the same last name was fair game. Apparently it was a rainy Saturday afternoon in Petersburg and Jackie was bored. She gave me the names of all of them, birth dates, death dates and more information then I could have hoped for. Before the 1950s the cemetery records contained the place of birth and the cause of death for the deceased. The German tradition of everyone being buried together meant that most of the children were buried in the family plot. That is how I found out that my grandmother and several of the older boys were born in Rockingham County, Virginia. Never knew that. I thought they came from Petersburg,  Philadelphia or North Dakota. That’s the only  places I ever heard of when I was growing up.  She also gave me all their addresses when they died, funeral homes that took care of the arrangements, birth dates, etc. I ended that afternoon with a new best friend and tons of data to include in my family tree. I spent the rest of the day grinning like an idiot.

A few weeks later, trying to get my hands on my grandfather’s death certificate was proving to be a complicated chore. But because of my new friend Jackie, I knew the funeral home so I called them and asked if they had records that went back that far. Apparently they keep those records forever and the gentleman I talked to informed me that I wouldn’t find a death certificate in Virginia because my grandfather had died in Philadelphia and was shipped home to be buried in Petersburg. Well that little tidbit made all the difference in the world. With it I was able to find a death certificate. Never did find an obituary though.

So the next boring afternoon you’re sitting around wondering which direction to take your research, back up, regroup and do some thinking outside the box. The least normal idea just might pay off.

Grandmother Volz

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