To the casual observer, it's nothing special from the outside—just a green, three-ring binder that anyone can buy for a few bucks at Wal-Mart or Kmart or just about anywhere. But on the inside, it holds 24 years of Christmas memories.
I began keeping a Christmas journal when I got married in 1977, and whatever possessed me to do so is long forgotten. In those early years, on loose-leaf notebook paper, I recorded what my husband and I had given each other as gifts, and what gifts we received from others. This record helped me a few weeks later when I wrote thank-you notes. Since then, however, my Christmas notebook has evolved and expanded as our family grew and as I took an interest in family history and wanted to leave a family artifact for future generations.
If you've never kept a Christmas journal before, there's no need to fret that you've missed out on several years of recording holiday memories. You can start at any time, and reconstruct previous years by talking with family members and asking them what they remember. This can be a marvelous activity for a family gathering that takes place around the holidays; just be sure to take notes and either audiotape or videotape the discussion as it takes place. These tapes will become family artifacts just like your Christmas journal.
A journal is all you need to start. And, it doesn't matter whether you purchase a special journal-type book, or a scrapbook, or a three-ring binder like I did. The content in between the covers is what's important.
The heart of a Christmas journal will no doubt be the gifts you exchange: the gifts you receive from others, as well as the gifts you give. Although the holidays have become highly commercialized, and it might appear that your journal is doing the same, this section is a reflection of your family's personality. What you choose to give others says something about each person.
Going back through the years, the predominant gifts I've received are books. That tells a future great-grandchild something about me. By looking more closely at the types of books, someone will discover that I wanted to be a writer (lots of Writer's Digest, how-to books) and that I liked romance novels and American history. Clothing items I received reveals to my descendants how I dressed: comfortably in sweats. Kitchen items my family gave me indicate a strong preference for things Italian: cookbooks, pasta bowls, a decorative olive-oil can.
Recording your gift giving and receiving has other significance. It reveals our popular culture—remember when bread machines first hit the market a few years ago and were so popular? It can also reveal economic status—were you better off financially some years and not others? Although I don't record the amount I spend on an item, I often wish I did. By tabulating the amount we spent, that would reveal and record not only the cost of items "through the years," but how rich or poor we were feeling at the time.
And, of course, leafing through the pages of your journal can bring back fond memories of each Christmas, causing you and your family to relive those special moments of receiving or giving the perfect gift.
Christmas Card Lists and Letters
In my Christmas notebook, I also keep the list of people to whom I send Christmas cards and annual letters. I find my Christmas card list changes with the years; I track who I receive cards from, and if I don't receive a card from a particular person or family two years in a row, they disappear from my list, and new friends are added. However, if I ever wanted to try and track down lost family members or friends, I have my lists from years ago with old addresses to start my search.
Writing annual Christmas letters has become a trend in the past decade or so. Save the ones you send and receive in your journal. Gathering the family around the tree with a cup of eggnog, you can read old letters out loud and reminisce about events. It's a great way to keep a record of your family's highlights.
When my daughter was born, I started buying a special ornament for her every Christmas so that when she moves into her own house, she'll have at least 18 or more ornaments with special memories to decorate her tree. In my Christmas notebook, I record the year and a description of each ornament. Like the gifts we receive, these ornaments also reveal something about my daughter's personality and likes.
On the ornament, I find a discreet spot to write in indelible ink the year I gave it to her. We've also received ornaments from friends over the years, and each one offers a special reminder of those people. But when I'm gone, will someone else know that the spider web ornament a friend gave me has unique ethnic and cultural significance? Probably not—if I hadn't written it down in my journal.
Meals and Treats
A big part of the holidays is eating. As a family historian, I find it fascinating to discover what my ancestors ate for special occasions, so I now record our holiday fare. We usually have a special meal on Christmas Eve and, of course, on Christmas Day. Along with writing down the food items you prepare and eat, if you're using a unique recipe, you might want to record that in your journal, or if it comes from a favorite cookbook, jot down the name of the cookbook, page and name of the recipe. There may be certain dishes and treats you make every year, and those that you're trying out for the first time. If the recipe is a flop or a hit, you can make note in your journal, so you know for next year. Write down, too, what time of the day you had your Christmas meal. Some families have it as a mid-day meal; others serve it in the evening.
Other Holiday Journals
Naturally, you don't have to limit your holiday journal to just Christmas. You can create specialized journals for other occasions that have significance in your family, such as Easter and Thanksgiving. If your family has a strong Irish background, you may want to create a journal around St. Patrick's Day, or St. Joseph's Day if you're Italian. (See the sidebar on page 23 for more ideas.)
Remember, your journal doesn't have to be fancy. A three-ring binder with sheets of loose-leaf paper is all you need to get started. It's not what's on the outside that makes this journal a treasure, but all the memories, love, joy and holiday spirit that's on the inside.
This article appeared in the December 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.