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October 24, 2014

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Genealogy:

Holiday letters a gift of family history

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

Some folks craft winning Christmas letters.

The best annual letter I remember from my childhood came from the Johnsons. Theirs was a collage of family photos taken throughout the year. The largest photograph featured the entire family and incorporated a dated Christmas greeting that usually involved Santa hats or reindeer antlers. Back then, the Johnsons made an annual paste-up of original photographs that they took to a printer. They retrieved each paste-up, framed it and hung it in consecutive order with the others. Visitors absorbed Johnson family history with each step they took down the Johnson hallway. Daughters Barb and Patty continued the tradition with their families. In 2005 Patty and her family took their official Christmas greeting picture in early spring. Their signature photo depicted Patty, her husband and their teenage sons wearing goofy grins, Santa hats and green and red sweatshirts. Each sweatshirt bore a large, white numeral centered on each red or green tummy; the numerals spelled out 2005. Patty passed away in July that year, long before Christmas. But her well-planned greeting brought damp December smiles.

Ryan Fitzgibbons developed his journal-writing skills when he served as a missionary in Brazil. This year, after five and one-half years of marriage, Ryan's wife, Amy, gave birth to the Las Vegas couple's first children — twins Adam and Rachel, who were born two and one-half months before their due date. Ryan's 2008 letter runs 27 hand-written, illustrated pages (not including the typed index). Like the annual Johnson collage, Ryan's letter is eagerly awaited by the couple's friends. It serves as a family journal, and it reveals Ryan's sense of the absurd. Ryan notes the expense of premature twins: "When they turn 16 and ask for a car, tell them we gave them car money. But they blew it on being born." On shopping for a family vehicle, Ryan confesses, "I stared silently at the steering wheel of a mini-van while the car salesman pointed out cup holders to my wife in the back seat . . . But a small piece of me died as we sat in that van . . . ." The mini-van did not become the Fitzmobile; that honor went to a shiny, red SUV with a tow ball (tow ball photo included). Amy went into labor so early the couple hadn't taken their childbirth class. Therefore, as Ryan drove her to the hospital, "Amy tried the breathing techniques she'd seen on TV." Ryan writes of the home healthcare nurse who visited: "It was meant to be a comfort to us, but our fears weren't exactly placated when, after a thorough exam of both babies, the nurse asked, 'Are they identical?' We stood there stupefied. Then [we] awkwardly stared down at our naked boy, then our naked girl, then back at the medical professional." Ryan discusses the economic downturn: "With the struggling Las Vegas economy we recently found out our house is worth less than half what we paid for it. It's pretty awesome to lose $125,000. Because it gives the false impression that at some point [we] actually had $125,000 to lose." Four Fitzgibbonses signed the 2008 letter with inked footprints: Adam and Rachel (six months), Ryan (334 months) and Amy (318 months).

Christmas letters are more than greetings — they are journals, travelogues and chronicles of family events and accomplishments. They inspire tears, laughter and memories. More importantly, they record one version of a family's history. A genealogist can't afford to overlook them. And with the Johnson collages or the Fitzgibbons letters, no genealogist would want to. Thank you, Ryan, for allowing me to use your words.

Stefani Evans is a board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News, 2360 Corporate Circle, Third Floor, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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