Advent Calendar: All Hail The Yule Log

For the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Christmas Eve.

Thank God for the Yule Log, is all I can say.

We were a bit thin on Christmas Eve traditions in my childhood home. My mother’s parents were German, so we could have adopted the German custom of keeping the tree in a closed room until the big reveal for the wide-eyed children on Christmas Eve.

But my German grandpa was more about being all-American. Anyway, he could hardly have hidden a Christmas tree in his Brooklyn apartment. And it wouldn’t be any easier to pull off in the New Jersey split-level where we were raised.

But we could cherish the Yule Log, a Christmas Eve TV tradition in the greater New York City area from 1966 to 1989. If you grew up in that place and time, chances are you tuned in to WPIX-TV for your fix, at least for a minute or two:

The Yule Log’s magic is hard to explain to someone who didn’t grow up with it. (“Let me get this straight. It was a VIDEO of a LOG. Burning. In the fireplace. With Christmas carols. That’s it?”)

Yeah. That’s it.

The Log originally burned in the fireplace at Gracie Mansion, the official home of New York City’s mayor. You can read all the history and trivia in this delightful Yule Log website, lovingly tended by Lawrence F. “Chip” Arcuri, a maestro of Yule Log trivia.

In a 1970s version of home-theater surround, we could put the Yule Log on the TV in the living room AND on the radio in the kitchen, since it was simulcast. And the sound track was a true winter wonderland: Percy Faith! The Robert Shaw Chorale! Mantovani! My Dad singing along as he wrapped the final fruitcakes!

It is hard to imagine any TV station today devoting four hours of programming on Christmas Eve to a musical, burning log. (“Aw, c’mon. Who needs another abs machine infomercial, anyway?”) And after 20-odd years of Yule Logs, WPIX found it hard to imagine, too. The Log went out for a good long time.

But no doubt due to devoted fans like Arcuri, the Yule Log’s custodians at WPIX and its parent, Tribune Broadcasting, have rediscovered its retro appeal. It’s returned to New York airwaves in recent years, although not on Christmas Eve. Here is a schedule.

Keep the home fires burning. And Merry Christmas!


Bookshelf Essentials

It’s funny; I don’t have a huge genealogy reference collection. I have a lot of books on topics related to my family history – the Irish in New York City, for example.

I also collect books that deal with social history, especially anything that teases out the details of everyday life in the first 30 years of the 20th century. But I have relatively few volumes specifically about the genealogical method. Maybe that’s because there are three that I go to again and again:

Unpuzzling Your Past by Emily Anne Croom. My edition of this classic is very pre-Ancestry.com; later versions tackle the nuances of online research. I still like my edition just fine. Croom focuses on the rock-ribbed foundations of family history research: where to start, what to write down, how to organize it. Her clear, detailed thoughts on summarizing your findings transcend any debates over hard drive vs. three-ring binder. Croom’s book oriented me when I first started jotting down the

messy desk

Yes, my desk is messy. You should see my bookshelves.

few genealogy scraps I knew, and I still turn to it to recall just why a mortality schedule is helpful, or which years New York State took censuses.

The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising. Once you’ve gotten far enough into family history research to hit brick walls, you’ll love this. Who can resist a chapter titled “Why Did the Census Taker Always Miss My Family?” Her case studies are detailed, interesting and challenge us with new approaches to old frustrations. My only personal quibble is the emphasis on land ownership and its paper trail – a huge resource, but not something researchers with tenement-dwelling forebears can count on! Overall, a wonderful primer for an intermediate researcher.

Evidence! by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This slim little tome packs a big wallop. It is to family-history citation what the Chicago Manual of Style is to term-paper writers. Mills efficiently outlines the process of identifying and properly attributing sources in genealogical research. It’s so important, because once we start writing our findings down for posterity, we really should state clearly why we know what we know, and why total strangers (i.e., our descendants) should take us seriously. Evidence! is a must have for anybody intent upon proper documentation. Which should be everybody.

Feel free to share any other genealogy titles you can’t live without.


Genealogical Getting (and Giving)

I’ve seen some wonderful, thoughtful lists of genealogy gift ideas this holiday season.

Not that I need them, because of course the only gift I really want this Christmas is family togetherness (and for all my relatives to send me scans of all their ancestral photographs). Little things like that.

All right, I confess I wouldn’t mind getting a DocuPen, but I wouldn’t mind hitting the MegaMillions jackpot, either.

Back down to earth, now.

For those of us with simpler tastes and budgets, a membership to a regional or ethnic genealogy society that focuses on a specific area of interest is a terrific buy. Plus, you get the added bonus of supporting people whose research projects have direct bearing on your own family search.

There are hundreds of ideas out there, but here are just a few examples involving my own regional interests:

The German Genealogy Group:  It’s based in NY but welcomes members from anywhere. A membership is $15/yearly for US citizens; $25/yearly for citizens of other countries.

The Italian Genealogy Group: Individual membership $25/year, $27/year for families and non-US residents.

Both groups are members of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island, whose volunteers spearhead the massive New York City Vital Records indexing project, a truly monumental effort that has resulted in genealogy joy for many, many people, including me.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ll have noticed my profound admiration for the Troy (NY) Irish Genealogy Society. They’re a prime example of a vigorous and productive regional society, doing valuable preservation work and research. If you know somebody researching Troy roots, you can’t go wrong at  $10 per year, individual membership.

And in the spirit of giving as well as receiving, do consider a donation to any volunteer group whose projects have benefited your research in the last year. I know that the NYC vital records project can always use the support. (Donations can be made payable to the Italian Genealogical Group and sent to John Martino, Project Coordinator, 49 Brookhill Lane, Huntington NY 11743.)

What are your favorite ideas for genealogical getting – or giving?


Hitting the bricks: Part II

I do hate that genealogy cliche, “brick wall”, but only because it’s a sad reality for so many of us. So it is satisfying to be able describe how a tiny opening developed in one of mine.

My great-grandfather refused to be located in the 1900 census. After various census and city directory searches (and increasingly bad moods), I ended up taking a mental-health break from this search, for which my living family thanked me.

Then a little while back, Ancestry.com was talking up a webinar: “Best Strategies for Searching Ancestry.com.” I took it, largely because I hadn’t ever done a webinar and was curious about the process. As ever, I learned a thing or two:

• The best place to start an Ancestry search is not the Search box on the Home page. Better to click the “Search” button in the menu bar, and use the “Search All Records” option.
• In old records, sloppy dates are a feature, not a bug. Search with broad date ranges, even if you’re sure you know the specifics. Start at plus/minus 10 years, and adjust downward.
• When you locate an interesting record, do NOT forget to save it somehow –your Ancestry shoebox or family tree, your hard disk, wherever. (Amazingly, many of us forget this in our excitement.)

The biggest discovery of all? I was doing crummy wild card searches.

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Hitting The Bricks (Part I)

“Brick wall” is one of the more painful clichés of family research. And there are days I think that I should become a mason.

My great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney has long irritated me by his refusal to be found in the 1900 census. Or in the 1900 anything, despite my diligent efforts. Talk about ingratitude.

I’ve found all his other census appearances from 1860 to 1930. I’ve journeyed to his birthplace, pored over vital records, and photographed his tombstone from a variety of angles, good, bad and ugly.
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Ancestral Dish: Stuffing Wars

Once I was a food section copy editor, and each year I fact-checked glowing Thanksgiving stories of the hallowed family traditions reflected in each cholesterol-busting side dish.

And I felt a bit left out. We make a fine Thanksgiving feast at my house, with all the proper things. But we really don’t have any truly unique ancestral side dishes.

The only noteworthy side dish was the stuffing, not because it’s unusual, but because it was the focus of a fierce tug-of-war between my parents. (Which is also not unusual. People are passionate about stuffing. Or dressing. Or whether it’s called stuffing or dressing.)

It was a face-off between Her Mother and His Mother, but indirectly, since my father’s mother, sadly, had died before Dad and Mom met.
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Seeking, finding, obsessing: an introduction

I am one of those genealogy addicts. You might run from us at parties. I understand.

Worse, the addiction has grown beyond mere family trees. In trying to uncover my ancestry, I’ve become addicted to uncovering history lessons on topics that fascinate me, if not the rest of my household.
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