Christmas was always a big deal when I was growing up. No less than seven Christmas trees were decorated and positioned throughout the house, each with a theme. My mom and grandmother would spend days cooking and baking for a Christmas party that boasted 40+ guests; tables set up in the garage became a makeshift cold room for anything that could be made a few days ahead. There would always be certain foods, desserts especially, that were made every year, like two different kinds of trifle, one berry and one chocolate, and a tart lemon pudding served in wine glasses with berries and decorative chocolate shapes resting on top. The mail was eagerly watched for the small, white box containing my great-grandmothers assorted shortbread cookies, my favourite ones had half a dried cherry on top, and fruitcake, which was my first experience with marzipan.
It’s been many years since the days of seven Christmas trees and my Gran passed away in 2007, but I can’t enter the month of December without thinking about the many Christmas traditions that I grew up with, some newly forged and some carried on from generations passed. As I look forward to spending my first Christmas as a mom, I’m thinking a lot about where my family’s traditions came from and which ones I’ll continue (or start) with my own family. And I find myself, as I often do, turning to genealogy to help answer these questions. Genealogy can tell us a lot about our present, and uncovering the history behind treasured traditions is one of the most rewarding aspects of the pursuit. All this month I’ll be looking at Christmas traditions and what they say about our family history. So what are some of your favourite holiday traditions?
Serendipity is an important source of information. Although it’s completely out of our control, unlike intentional searches, it can be just as productive. If you sit down at a table of genealogists, you will be guaranteed to find a story of serendipity from each of them. That’s part of the excitement of research, you never know what you’re gong to find when you’re looking for something else.
My favourite moment of serendipity came a few years ago when I was researching my great-great-great grandfather, Josiah Spriggs. I knew that he was a journalist in London and I thought it would be cool to find some articles he’d written, so I did a newspaper search for his name on ancestry.com. I did succeed in finding his name, but not in the byline as I had expected. What I found was an 1897 newspaper article from the Liverpool Daily Post titled “The outrage on a lady cyclist in Flintshire.” The article explained that a man named Frank Wallace Spriggs (my great-great-great uncle) was arrested and charged with “robbery with violence” and “attempted criminal assault” for allegedly knocking a young woman from her bicycle, attempting to “indecently assault” her and stealing her ring and bracelet. Josiah was mentioned in the article because he and my 3g grandmother spoke as witnesses for him, stating that he had been either at home or in the company of a family member all that day.
Obviously, I was surprised and very intrigued. A family member arrested for robbery, assault, and what can safely be assumed to be attempted rape! I began browsing through issues of the Liverpool Daily Post and found another article from a few months later. This one was much shorter, more of a blurb than an article, stating simply that he had been sentenced to five years penal servitude. Penal servitude?! More searching came up with nothing and the trail, as far as newspapers were concerned, was closed. Or so I thought. Then came the next bit of serendipity. Another ancestry member made a connection with my tree based on our shared ancestry with the Spriggs family. She was happy to be connected to the Liverpool articles about Frank, which she had not found herself. What she had turned up was an article from a New Zealand newspaper called The Colonist. It was originally written in Maori, but my new friend was able to send me a transcription of the translated article. It stated that my uncle had been released after two months and the author of the piece felt that he had only been convicted because the judge had unjustly influenced the jury. It included some information not found in the earlier articles, such as the fact that a dozen witnesses had swore that he wasn’t within a hundred miles of the incident and that the cyclist and others had identified him through his photo.
This leads to more questions. Why had the police had a photo of him in the first place? Did he already have prior arrests? Is that what prejudiced the judge against him? Who are the other witnesses who identified him? Surely they couldn’t have been witness to the crime itself, because who would be stupid enough to try to rape somebody in from of an audience?
Although I tend to keep my research restricted to my immediate ancestors, this story has kept me fascinated. Next step is to try and find some of the primary records involved: the arrest record, the court records, his transportation records to New Zealand. One open door leads to a whole corridor of others to explore. That’s part of the fun!
In an effort to encourage the use of its traditional language, the National Library of Scotland has added a Gaelic search page to its website. Gaelic is on my list of languages I’d like to learn, although I can already sing a few Gaelic songs (thanks to The Rankin Family). I have yet to find any records that indicate that my own Scottish lineage included Gaelic speakers, but I’m always on the lookout.