The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archiving Family Traditions
Holiday family traditions are some of the things that people look forward to throughout the year. For my family, that would be the annual Christmas party. This is an unusual tradition in a Jewish family that emigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
That's my Grandmother, Sally, on the lower left, her 4 brothers and sisters and her mother. It was her younger sister, Frankie, on the upper left, who started the family tradition that lives on today. As an adult, Aunt Frankie lived in New York City and before she got married she shared an apartment with a roommate from Chicago. As the story goes, one year the roommate could not get home for the holiday. Aunt Frankie decided to throw a party for her and invited her own extended family, which at that point lived in New Jersey and New York. The party has been held each year since then.
I'm not sure in exactly what year that first party took place, but in 1939, my mother attended the party. She is the second on the left in the first row.
And at the 1940 party this picture was taken of my Grandma Sally, her 4 brothers and sisters and their spouses in front of the Christmas tree.
Grandma Sally is in the middle of the back row with her husband, David, to her right. Aunt Frankie is wearing the pinafore and her husband, Wally, stands behind her. Nearby is the piano which was part of the entertainment at the party for many years.
In 1982, this picture was taken of Aunt Frankie's extended family. Aunt Frankie is in the middle row on the left with her children, grandchildren and in-laws. Frankie's eldest grandson, sitting on her lap and making a silly face, now has a child of his own as does his brother on the far right. Cousin Francie, one of Aunt Frankie's daughters, on the right with her arm around the boy in red pants, now hosts the party. Even after the passing of Sally and Frankie's generation, we still celebrate on Christmas Day along with the four generations of family that live in an ever-widening circle from Massachusetts to Virginia to California and points in between.
There are many traditions that are part of this family gathering. For example, we always have a Christmas tree and when Hanukkah and Christmas coincided, we light the candles on the menorah. The menu has remained fairly unchanged over the years. The feast includes turkey, stuffing (with and without nuts), beef tongue (don't knock it till you've tried it), baked beans, a chopped cabbage salad (served in the same huge bowl), cranberry sauces of various kinds, and of course a variety of delicious desserts.
There are other elements that make this tradition so rich including shared stories of past parties, family recipes and cooking rituals (the preparation of that chopped salad begins days in advance). Cousin Bill, Aunt Frankie's son, wrote and recorded a story for a public radio station one year that we listened to together during the party. We have also heard music, poetry and comedy records and there were even a few years where some of the cousins performed magic tricks. All these things are part of the history of a family tradition. There have been many photos and videos taken over the years to record the parties and we love to look back at images of past gatherings. Sharing our memories brings great pleasure to us all.
Preserving these traditions takes some effort in collecting and organization. The Archives has written about this before and it seems timely again.
Here are a few ideas about saving stories, recipes and video/audio recordings:
- Create a journal. Tell the story of an event. Share it with other members of the family to capture more details. Including information about who, where and when comes in handy when you want to recall some detail from a previous event.
- Write down and share recipes. Take pictures of food (tablets and smart phones are great for doing this). Write down a recipe and save it on your computer. Include information about who made that dish, its origins and family memories and stories associated with it.
- Make video/audio recordings of people singing, telling stories, reading poetry, or in the case of my family, doing magic tricks. It is easy to download these files from a camera/smartphone/tablet to your computer.
- Scan paper documents/pictures. Today's all-in-one printers make it easy to scan a document. And there are hand-held scanners that allow you to copy images/documents from a book or album.
- Save these files on a computer and organize them. It is good to name and group files by date, location or name so that you can find them later.
- Make backup copies in a different place, for example on a hard drive, flash drive, CD/DVD, or the cloud.
- Save hard copies of select files. Pick the best, or most favorite and print them out. Create a scrapbook that can be shared.
Taking a little time and effort will help to preserve family traditions and create a legacy to share. Remembering the sounds, smells, tastes, laughter and warm feelings bring us together again over the miles and the years. So, pass the turkey and the beef tongue and don’t skimp on the chopped salad!
- Clean Sweep in the New Year: Organizing Digital Photos, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives