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Fading Christmas Traditions

The Nordic immigrants in my family arrived in America in the early 20th century. They brought with them their way of celebrating Christmas.

In this tradition, families gathered on Christmas Eve to share holiday food and exchange gifts. Santa Claus (Julenisse in Norway and Joulupukki in Finland) would knock on the door to leave a special gift for each child in the household.

The next morning, on Christmas Day, these devout people attended their Lutheran church to mark the Savior’s birth.

I have always loved celebrating the Christmas holiday this way, but it is becoming harder as the years go by. The Scandinavians have assimilated into the American way of life, and their former practices have given way to the dominant culture.

Yet even as most people seem to have switched to opening Christmas gifts in the morning on the 25th, I would rather attend church then. This presents a problem for me because most Lutheran churches no longer hold a service on Christmas Day. On the day before Christmas, they bend over backwards to have services all day and evening, and then tell you to stay home on Christ’s birthday.

This year my own congregation has decided to follow the new pattern and skip a Christmas Day service. I asked the church office to point me to another congregation in the area that still schedules a December 25 worship service. They could not.

After some internet searching, I finally found one. Only one. You can bet I will be in the pew there on Christmas morning, even as this tradition fades away all around me.

Julfest Time

At this time of year, Norwegians enjoy a Julfest to celebrate the solstice and the festival of Christmas.

Some parts of the U. S. hold large events with Nordic Markets and bonfires. They serve traditional Norwegian treats such as lefse, pickled herring, pea soup, and cookies, lots and lots of cookies.

Our local Sons of Norway lodge held a Julfest this month. We focused on the cookies for our party. Everyone brought some to exchange.

A few people brought more modern recipes, but several of the traditional cookies appeared as well:

  1. Krumkake—a waffle cookie made on a two-sided iron griddle,
  2. Sandbakkelse—sand tarts made in tins of different shapes
  3. Pepperkakker—spiced cookies
  4. Spritz cookies—a simple cookie dough pressed through a decorative disk
  5. Fattigmann—dough twisted into a fancy shape and deep fried
  6. Serinakaker—Norwegian butter cookies
  7. Rosettes—deep fried lacy treats made with a special rosette iron

After the Julfest, my husband/tech advisor and I took home a heaping plate of all sorts of cookies. We have been enjoying them all week.


A Family of Black Sheep

Families come in all shapes and sizes. Often they have individual members who contribute to society in ways that benefit everyone. Mine, not so much. One could describe many of our relatives as black sheep ancestors, or those who behaved in disreputable or disgraceful ways.

When I found a new branch of my dad’s family this year, I should not have been surprised to find that it, too, is peopled with black sheep. Every one of my dad’s grandparents had skeletons in the closet:

  1. Reed. My great-grandfather left his family and squandered his inheritance on fruitless land speculation. A Reed cousin defected to East Germany during the Cold War.
  2. Riddle. A distant great-uncle sued his brother over the family farm, leaving his sibling destitute and without means to make a living. Another brother served time for larceny and then became a reclusive sheepherder in Montana.
  3. Ryan. Over three generations, these men abandoned their children, either leaving them to be raised by relatives or placing them in orphanages. Some cousins were Nebraska bootleggers during Prohibition.
  4. Sherman. These blacksmiths believed in homemade money. Several were arrested for counterfeiting. One was shot and killed in his bed by a disgruntled associate.

As I uncover more of this doubtful legacy, I begin to wonder about the advice our great-grandfather Reed left with his offspring. He told them, “You inherited a good name, now keep it that way.”

Oh, the irony.


In Need of a Local Map

This week I wanted a map of the Nebraska area where my great-grandparents lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They homesteaded northeast of Palisade in Hayes County. I needed something that would locate their farms and provide some surrounding context.

My road atlas provided a political map with towns, roads, and county boundaries, but I was hoping for even more information. I remembered that I had once attended a seminar on using maps for genealogical research. Perhaps the instructor had offered some suggestions on where to look for the type of map I envisioned.

I pulled out his handout from 2014 (yes, I saved it!). I saw that he had given us a list of major map websites.

After seven years, I wondered how many of these could still be viable. I did recognize a few such as the USGS topographic maps, the David Rumsey map collection, and the Library of Congress map collection. I decided against starting with these.

The topo maps on the USGS site show only topographic information. I find the Rumsey site and the LOC site cumbersome to use. It takes me a long time to find what I am looking for, and I have a hard time trying to print what I need. I wanted a faster result.

The seminar handout listed another site that I decided to try. I was delighted to find that it still exists. It is called the National Map (, and it is maintained by the United States Geological Survey. As a government service, it is free to use.

The home page has a link to the National Map viewer. You can zoom in to any location in the United States. The resulting map of the Palisade, Nebraska area was exactly what I sought.

My map includes so many things of interest:

  1. Political entities like the town of Palisade, its nearby highways, and the Burlington Northern railroad line,
  2. Land survey section lines and numbers for the surrounding area,
  3. Waterways like Frenchman Creek and the Culbertson Canal,
  4. Places like the local cemetery, a dam, and a gravel pit,
  5. Topography lines to help me understand the elevations of the land.

My map is wonderful, exactly what I needed. The National Map website is simple to navigate, and it is easy to print a map.

I plan to return to this site to find other locations from my family’s history. Maps provide a great way to visualize the places they lived.

Thanksgiving Plans Change

We thought this year would be different.

We have two grown sons and their families who live nearby, and we anticipated spending Thanksgiving with some of them.

Then a couple of people developed coughs earlier this week. Covid tests came back positive.

We are thankful that all the unwell seem to be recovering at home without complications.

But the Thanksgiving family gathering has had to be cancelled. Each nuclear family will eat the festive meal separately.

Those of us who can do so will meet for a Zoom call with the extended family in the afternoon. We did this last year when no one could meet in person. Now again this year it is the only option for the locals to visit one another.

Despite the change in plans, my husband/tech advisor and I will enjoy the holiday. Zooming with the relatives and eating a delicious turkey dinner together does not sound so bad.

At least I am not trying to fly anywhere.



Writing Again

The Christmas season approaches. Each year I write an ancestor’s biographical sketch to send around to family members. I get these ready every November. In prior years I have completed work on all the great-grandparents and second great-grandparents that I could identify.

This year I had intended to move back a generation and begin working on my third great grandparents. I spent about half the year researching one of them, Benjamin E. Dunbar (1776-1851) of Chatham, MA.

Then a surprise DNA match arrived over the summer. Suddenly I knew the identity of a previously unknown great-grandfather. This man’s family branch had been a huge hole in my family tree. Now I had his name.

I dropped everything else to learn all I could about him. He became the focus of my biographical sketch for this year.

His death certificate and probate file arrived in the mail this month just in time for me to complete my 2021 project. I now have everything I need to tell his story.

Soon I will get it printed and send it around to the family in time for Christmas.

Veteran’s Day Ahead

This week we honor all the veterans of our armed forces. Coming from a family where many members have served, I like to take note of the day.

It will be a special one for me this time. In August, my application to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was approved. I was eligible by virtue of descent from a veteran of the Revolutionary War.

My ancestor was Gershom Hall (1760-1844), a Patriot from Massachusetts. He enlisted at Barnstable County on 1 Sep 1780. He then served as a Private under Captain Nathaniel Freeman in Lt. Col. Enoch Hallett’s regiment where he served 2 mos., 4 days, including 4 days (75 miles) travel home. The unit was stationed in Rhode Island to reinforce the Continental Army. Gershom Hall was discharged 31 Oct 1780.

As we honor him and others on Veteran’s Day this week, we have an additional reason to remember our former servicemen. In Colorado we will commemorate the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The DAR chapter in Aurora, CO will host a Veteran’s Day event at the Colorado Freedom Memorial. The ceremony will include the welcome of honored guests, a history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a wreath laying, and the National Salute.

Join us at 10:30.



A Week of Genealogy Webinars

They say things come in threes. This week brought me three interesting genealogy webinars on various topics.

An Overview of My Heritage by Del Ritchhart

During this presentation hosted by the Colorado Genealogical Society, local genealogist Del guided us through the powerful My Heritage website. We learned how to create a family tree and expand it using the genealogy discoveries that My Heritage finds and suggests. He explained how to upload DNA test results and make the most of all the matches we receive. He demonstrated the site’s photo colorization and animation feature. During the presentation, I created a To-Do list of features I want to try. First up, the consistency checker for family tree errors.

Building Family Trees for Your DNA Matches by Mary Eberle

Legacy Family Tree Webinars engaged the founder of the DNA Hunters consulting service to talk about a methodology for determining how an unknown DNA match may be related. I was happy to learn that I am doing something right. I use the same approach she suggests. I, too, work to build trees for unknown matches out to the great-great grandparents looking for a common ancestor. She also offered some helpful tips for identifying matches who use just initials or an alias or who have no tree posted on the testing site.

Basics of New England Research by Ann Lawthers

This webinar presented by American Ancestors and scheduled for later today anticipates the release of the sixth edition of Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research. The class promises to cover the historical context and organization of New England records. It will offer strategies for successful New England research. I have not worked with New England sources beyond town records and the American Ancestors website, so I am eager to learn more. I have numerous New England ancestors who lived in Massachusetts from 1620-1831 left on my research list.

Having these webinars available for free from home helps me stay up to date on my research skills. I learn something new each time. The only problem is deciding where to begin.

A Mysterious DNA Match

For a long time, I have spent about one morning a week analyzing my dad’s DNA matches. I am looking to break through some brick walls in our family tree. Sometimes I have success, as I did when a DNA match identified a great-grandfather earlier this summer. More often, though, it seems I have difficulty establishing the relationship.

My effort this week met with little success. I tried to determine how we are related to a California woman who is predicted to be my father’s third cousin.

Third cousins share second great-grandparents, so I needed those names (16 in all) for the woman’s family. One of them should be our most recent common ancestor.

The woman had no family tree posted on the testing site, so I Googled her unusual name. I found her father’s 2008 obituary including her as a survivor. This information implied her maiden name.

Next, I looked at her father’s FindAGrave memorial. This gave me more of his family information and linked to her mother’s memorial.

With this much information, I could locate the family on the Family Search family tree. There I found the names of 12 of the woman’s 16 second great-grandparents. Nothing looked familiar.

That leaves one set of the woman’s great-grandparents whose own parents are unidentified and for whom I have only the paternal surnames. This family lived in Wisconsin. If they are part of my family, I cannot see how they fit with ours.

I am looking for families for three of my ancestors, none of whom ever resided in Wisconsin:

  1. John Davis Riddle (1821-1896). He was born in Pennsylvania, lived as a young man in Ohio, and migrated to Michigan.
  2. Daniel Sherman (abt. 1800-aft. 1863). He was born in New York and had arrived in Kentucky by 1821. He sold his land there in 1863 and disappeared from the record. His children were in Indiana and Illinois by 1870.
  3. Katherine Stillabower/Stilgenbauer (dates unknown). Her daughter (my great-grandmother) was born at Edinburgh, Indiana in 1865. We have no other information about Katherine. The greater Stillabower/Stilgenbauer family immigrated from Bavaria in the 1830’s and 1840’s and settled in Indiana.

The California DNA match does have ancestors in other lines who did live in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, states where my brick wall ancestors also lived. Perhaps our connection lies in one of those branches, but she has no surnames in common with any of mine.

This DNA match will remain a mystery for now.

Genealogy Potpourri

Some weeks seem a little scattered in the home office. I engaged in several unrelated genealogy activities this week:

  1. My research papers on the Ryan family have taken on a life of their own. I spent my genealogy time yesterday sorting and organizing the mess. Now I am ready to move forward with some productive research.
  2. I have not attended the local Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society in-person programs that began this fall. They record their programs so members can listen later if they miss a meeting. I donned my headphones to hear the September program and hope to listen to the October program tonight.
  3. The Colorado Genealogical Society hosts Zoom classes on specialized topics once a month. I registered for an upcoming session on using the My Heritage online website.
  4. As I read the most recent journal of the Palatines to America organization yesterday, I found the information for next spring’s conference in Denver. I invited my half-German husband/tech advisor to go. We made a hotel reservation this morning. We are already looking forward to an immersion in German food, genealogy, culture, and companionship.

As the weekend approaches, I have Ryan family papers to analyze, an interesting lecture to hear, and both a class and a conference to look forward to. Not bad for a disjointed week.