WWI Christmas Truce: When the Guns Stopped Firing

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena tells a remarkable story: how the power of Christmas – with its hope of “peace on earth, good will to men” – temporarily stopped the fighting during WWI in 1914.

By December 1914, Germany, Britain, France, and other European nations had been fighting since August. Trenches were dug on the Western front in September and those trenches, now home to soldiers, meant a holiday that would be cold, wet, and miserable tinged with the constant threat of death. What was first thought of as a “great adventure” by many young men must have quickly turned into a harsh cold reality as the casualties rose.

Then Christmas time approached, and something wonderful happened.

Illustration: the “Illustrated London News” depiction of the WWI Christmas Truce of 1914: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.”

Illustration: the “Illustrated London News” depiction of the WWI Christmas Truce of 1914: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.” The subcaption reads: “Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternising on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill: Officers and men from the German and British trenches meeting and greeting one another; a German officer photographing a group of foes and friends.” Credit: A. C. Michael; Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Benedict Calls for Christmas Truce

In an attempt to stop the fighting for Christmas that year, Pope Benedict called on the warring nations to declare a Christmas truce. Initially, Germany was reportedly agreeable to a truce – but only if the other countries agreed.

article about the WWI Christmas truce in 1914, Elkhart Daily Review newspaper article 11 December 1914

Elkhart Daily Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 11 December 1914, page 1

Pope’s Plea Denied

But not every country was in agreement about the Christmas truce, so the discussion of a lull in the fighting ended. By mid-December 1914 the American newspapers announced that an official cease fire was not to be.

The following newspaper article reported:

The thundering roll of heavy guns will be the Christmas chimes of Europe. It’s [sic] carols will be the cries of dying men. Across the sky toward which wise men looked for the star which guided them to a manger will dart the aircraft of hostile powers – the latest man-made engine for aiding the destruction of fellow men.

Thousands may die upon battlefields on this Christmas Day when the message of ‘Peace on earth, good will to men,’ is being again repeated in other parts of the world.

article about the WWI Christmas truce in 1914, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 13 December 1914

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 13 December 1914, page 1

Andrew Carnegie Comments

Interestingly enough, though America was not yet engaged in World War I, there was an American industrialist who was against a Christmas-time truce. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie weighed in with the opinion that a truce where the fighting would end momentarily and then commence after the holidays was “unchristianlike and immoral.” Instead he called for supporting President Woodrow Wilson in promoting and securing a permanent peace: “It is terrible that so many widows and orphans are being made because a few men wanted war.” (An interesting aside is that this newspaper article ends with the comment that Carnegie walked to the White House to see the President, but the President was out golfing.)

article about the WWI Christmas truce, Elkhart Daily Review newspaper article 11 December 1914

Elkhart Daily Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 11 December 1914, page 1

Brief Christmas 1914 Truce

While an official truce did not occur, many WWI soldiers took matters into their own hands, setting aside their weapons and reaching out to their enemies in the spirit of the season. There were in fact mini truces all along the trenches that Christmas. While some mythology surrounds the details, there is no doubt that there was an unofficial cease fire, and soldiers from opposite sides did interact peacefully in “No Man’s Land” for Christmas 1914. Recollections of those involved told of gift giving, singing, kicking balls around, and other friendly interactions.

photo of British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the WWI Christmas truce of 1914

Photo: British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the WWI Christmas truce of 1914. Credit: Robson Harold B.; Wikimedia Commons.

This report from a Rhode Island newspaper announces “British and Germans Exchange Gifts During a Christmas Truce on Firing Line.” The article reports:

On Christmas morning two British soldiers, after signalling truce and good-fellowship from the perilous crown of their trench, walked across to the German line with a plate of mince pies and garniture and seasonable messages… and were sent back with packets of Christmas cards – quite sentimental – wreathed with mistletoe and holly, for distribution among their fellows.

article about WWI Christmas truce in 1914, Pawtucket Times newspaper article 31 December 1914

Pawtucket Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island), 31 December 1914, page 11

Initially American newspapers reported that an unofficial truce would be declared in the trenches so that the men could eat their Christmas dinners in peace. While those in charge were providing their fighting men with some small luxuries (reportedly the French government sent their soldiers champagne), an unofficial momentary truce was about all that these soldiers could hope for.

article about WWI Christmas truce in 1914, Times-Picayune newspaper article 26 December 1914

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 26 December 1914, page 6

Unfortunately, those fighting in World War I would see not only the Christmas of 1914 come and go with no peaceful solution to the war, but they would see three more Christmases bring fighting and lives lost – for some countries, almost wiping out an entire generation.

But for a brief time, that December 1914, soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons and enjoyed a little “peace on earth,” if only just for a short while.

photo of a cross erected in Belgium in 1999 to commemorate the WWI Christmas truce of 1914

Photo: a cross erected in Belgium in 1999 to commemorate the WWI Christmas truce of 1914. The inscription reads: “1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget.” Credit: Redvers; Wikimedia Commons.

Various stories of the Christmas truce can be found in historical newspapers and online. A dramatic narration done by Walter Cronkite accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir tells the story of the World War I Christmas truce and can be found on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRq–pTnlog.

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3 Tips for Sharing the Family History You Gather This Holiday Season

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena provides some helpful tips for how to preserve and share the family stories you gather during this Holiday Season.

With family members gathering for the Holiday Season, now is a great time to ask questions and hear stories about your family history.  Once you’ve collected these stories, what do you do with the information? How do you preserve and share these family stories? And what does it mean to effectively share them?

Painting: “The Christmas Tree” by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911

Painting: “The Christmas Tree” by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

To effectively share family history, it has to be preserved – and in order to be preserved, it needs to be copied and be of interest to those who are inheriting it. The following tips are some ideas on how to do exactly that.

Tip #1: Make Copies Available

Burning information to a CD, saving it on a flash drive, or uploading it to a cloud storage website or via an app might be the easiest way of sharing your latest family history finds. Depending on your family, how many people you will be sharing the information with, and their grasp on technology, your method for sharing these recent discoveries may differ. Years ago one of my cousins would write a Christmas letter detailing her latest research and findings. Each family received that and any documents that she found. These paper copies were then saved by families, ready to be discovered by future budding family historians. For current discoveries that I want to share, I have done everything from burning CDs for family members, to sharing via digital methods like a private virtual bulletin board on Pinterest showcasing family photos, or creating a shared folder on cloud storage site Dropbox.

Tip #2: Get Family Members Involved

So you’ve shared photographs, video or audio files – and even documents or family histories – with your family. Now what? Ask family members for something in return. Once they have viewed what you have provided, ask them for additional contributions. Do they have previously unshared photos that would illustrate the stories you shared? Do they have memories that can be audio recorded via an app or an audio recorder? Do they want to create a video that tells the “rest of the story” that you have started?

Too often family histories and memories are gathered – only to sit on a bookshelf, photo album, or the computer. Encourage recipients to treat the information you share as a “living document,” and either add to it or ask questions so that more information can be added for the next family gathering.

Tip #3: Tell an Interesting Story

I’ve noticed in funerals that I’ve attended in the last few years, families are putting together slide shows of photos of the recently deceased, sharing their life from birth to latter years. These slide shows often include music and provide viewers with a look back at that life, and share images that trigger thoughts of happier times.

While slide shows are a great idea for a funeral, why not use them to tell your family story and recent discoveries now? Did you do something special this Holiday Season to capture even more memories? Did you have everyone write out a Thanksgiving or Christmas memory or interview them? People like a good story so why not use what you have discovered to create a visual family history story.

Why not use software on your computer or a free online program to put together a slide show that you can then share at your next family event? Microsoft PowerPoint allows you to add audio and video to a slide show. You can incorporate photos, music and even the voices of family members on a slide show that can be the star of your next gathering, or put the slides on a “loop” that plays automatically as people mingle. Don’t own Microsoft PowerPoint? Free versions of slide show software can be found online including through Google Drive and Prezi.

Once your live performance of the slide show is done, share the slides or use them to create a scrapbook that can be printed out.

Remember that telling an interesting story and preserving the memories you’ve recorded can be done in many different ways. “Playing cards” printed with ancestor facts and images can be created and gifted to younger family members. Matching games can be played using these cards. Copies (don’t use originals) of documents and images can be laminated and used as table place mats. These place mats can help facilitate sharing stories and memories.*

How will you share your family history finds? However you decide to share memories you’ve recorded this Holiday Season, work on sharing them with everyone so that those memories are passed on.

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* Never laminate original documents or photos. Lamination is not a preservation method and will cause irreversible damage.

Family History Interviewing Tips for the Holiday Season

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena provides some helpful tips for conducting oral interviews with your family members this holiday season so that you can record those family stories.

It’s that time of the year when families gather, break bread, and take part in age-old holiday traditions. There’s no better time than the holidays to pursue family history! Think about it: everyone is together and they are having conversations that begin with “remember when…” It’s the perfect time to take advantage of those memories and conduct some interviews.

This article will give you some helpful tips for conducting oral interviews with your family members this holiday season so that you can record those family stories.

painting: “Happy Christmas” by Johansen Viggo, 1891

Painting: “Happy Christmas” by Johansen Viggo, 1891. Source: Den Hirschsprungske Samling; Wikimedia Commons.

“Interview” seems like such an official name for what you really want to do: capture the stories and memories of family young and old. Young family members?! Of course! Ask them questions about their lives and memories now so that they can benefit when they are older.

You say you’re convinced that it’s a good genealogy idea to take advantage of an upcoming family gathering – but how do you actually conduct interviews with your relatives? The following steps will help you take action and preserve those family memories for the future.

Get Your Interview Plan Ready

Decide from the start what you want to know about your family history. Will your family interviews be strictly with the older generation and involve them recalling their lives thus far? Will the interviews center on a theme and everyone in the family will be involved (for example: tell us your favorite holiday memory)? Maybe you’ll put together index cards of prompts and then invite family members to spend some time in an “interview booth” (maybe a spare room) and answer questions while speaking into a video camera. First, decide what you want to know and whom you want to participate.

Now that you have a plan, make sure you let everyone know ahead of time. Not everyone likes to be photographed or recorded. Your family history interview questions, even seemingly benign ones, may bring up bad memories. Remember that answering endless questions can be tiring, so decide what will be asked, of whom, and how long it will take. Let everyone you are interviewing know so that they can be prepared and not feel put on the spot. This might also allow them time to find and bring heirloom items, photographs, or other family memorabilia to share. (Make sure to bring a camera or a scanner as well as recording equipment.)

You will need to prepare what questions you will ask about your family history ahead of time. Not sure what to ask? Various family interview prompts can be found online, such as the article Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews by genealogist Kimberly Powell. Don’t be afraid to ask general questions of everyone that focus on the holidays, memories of specific people, or even what they are thankful for.

Now decide how you’ll record the information gathered from your family interviews. Smart phones and mobile devices make audio and video recording your interviewees easy. You can even download a specialized mobile app that will help you record and share information. Once recorded, make sure to upload the file to a cloud sharing website and provide access to family members, or save the file on a portable storage device like a flash drive and hand them out. Even if you don’t have a smart phone or mobile device, a video recorder or a digital audio recorder might be just what you need.

Interview Preparation & Considerations

It’s the day of the big event. Set the stage for your family history interviews. Find a quiet, comfortable spot. Prepare the interviewing area for your equipment. If you are using anything that requires big bulky extension cords, be sure to make the area safe for everyone to walk through.

Most importantly, as you talk with each family member, make sure you are clear about what you will be doing with the information they provide during the interview. Will it be transcribed and used in a family history? Posted to a social media or family website? It’s important that the relatives participating know what will be done with the material and how they can access it so that they can make informed decisions about participating. You definitely don’t want any hard feelings later when your aunt realizes her true feelings about her sister-in-law are going to be part of the next family reunion slide show.


Start interviewing your relatives. Let people talk and don’t interrupt. After they answer your interview questions allow a delay before you speak. Ask for clarifications of terms, places, or information they mentioned that won’t be easily understood by others.

Limit your time with each family member and if they look like they need a break, give it to them. Several small family history interviews may be preferable to one large interview. Remember, even though we LOVE family history, some family members may not be as enamored with it and may even feel like it’s intrusive. The whole point is to get those stories down and learn more about your collective family history.

Interviewing family members doesn’t have to be a large project. It can be as big or as small as you want. Use the opportunity of a family dinner, reunion, or holiday gathering to ask questions and record those answers. Then, don’t let that information languish in your electronic device: transcribe it, upload it and share it so that all family members can benefit from those interviews.

Happy memory making!

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A 1941 News Article Reminds Us of the Real Meaning of Christmas

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan shares an old newspaper article she found recently while doing family history research, which presents one man’s discovery in 1941 about the meaning of Christmas.

While doing some family history research recently in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I ran across an article written by Channing Pollock in 1941.

photo of a candle on a Christmas tree

Photo: candle on a Christmas tree. Credit: Gerbil; Wikimedia Commons.

His article is so wonderful that I transcribed every word to share with our readers.

I Ran Away from Christmas, by Channing Pollock, Boston Herald newspaper article 21 December 1941

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 21 December 1941, page 16

I Ran Away from Christmas

By Channing Pollock

It was four or five years ago that my wife and I wearied of Christmas and decided to “get away from it all.” We had had a couple of very dull holiday dinners with relatives who didn’t think of us much – or think much of us – the other 364 days, and we had revolted against the janitor and the delivery boys and what-not along the avenue of itching palms.

“I’m tired,” my wife said, “of fighting crowds in shops, and wrapping things in tissue, and addressing hundreds of envelopes. I’d like to go where we could just have each other, and something really resembling ‘peace on earth.’”

“There is an ancient and honorable hymn,” I reminded her, “that runs, ‘Peace, perfect peace, with the loved ones far away.’”

So we spent that Christmas in Taormina – and we shall always remember it as the drabbest, loneliest, most generally wretched 24 hours of our lives.

Not that we didn’t get all we bargained for – and then some. Taormina, near the foot of Mount Aetna, is one of the quaintest, loveliest towns in the world. It has, or had, a palatial hotel that used to be a monastery, and is the coldest, most utterly impersonal of all possible places to spend the Yuletide. My wife and daughter and I rose at the usual hour and wished one another Merry Christmas – but there was no merriment, or anything that even remotely suggested Christmas. When we said Merry Christmas to the waiters and chambermaids, and crossed their palms with silver, they thanked us impersonally. Secretly we longed for our postman, who always rang twice at Christmas, and for the delivery boys, and for the two or three old servants who used to have Christmas dinner in our kitchen.

Nobody phoned, of course. At 10 o’clock we went to church in the biggest, most impersonal church I ever saw, with only strangers about us, and the service in a strange tongue. By then we were fairly aching for contacts with those we loved, whether or not we loved them or they us the other 364 days. So we strolled down the main street and sent yearning cables to all our sisters and cousins and aunts. No one replied; we had told them we wanted a quiet Christmas, and we got our wish. We opened the gifts we had bought (missing all the foolish tissue and tinsel and mess) and it seemed somehow odd and idiotic to be giving things to one another in big, empty, stone-floored rooms.

By night we felt like God’s step-children, and we sat alone at a huge table in a vast dining room, ate antipasto and ravioli and duck with olives, and listened to a string quartet. On the way out, at the other end of the hall, we saw a Christmas tree, trimmed and lighted and surrounded by a gay group of holiday-dressed children and grown-ups. “That’s nice of the hotel,” we thought, and rushed for the tree as though it were an oasis in a desert. We were within a few feet of it when the doors were closed in our faces; this was a private celebration, and no strangers wanted. After that, none of us troubled to hide our depression. We clung to, and were glad – so glad – we had one another.

For the rest of our lives we shall spend the Yule season shopping, and wrapping, and calling Merry Christmas to everyone we see, and being warmed and happy that they call Merry Christmas to us.

The truth of the matter is that we all need the hurly-burly of Christmas, when the world is open-house, and gay and open-hearted. Those other 364 days we are remote from most of our fellows, thinking of ourselves and our business and humdrum preoccupations. We have been thinking of dreadful things, too, those 364 days – of marching men, and dead and dying men, and desolate and hungry women and children. For one day, it is blessed to retreat into childhood, and simple faith, and kindness and generosity, and all the memories and traditions of a festival born with the gentle Jesus. Scrooge may call it “a shopkeepers’ holiday,” but you and I know that something more precious than money goes into those shops, and something more wanted and needed than socks and slippers and rings and perfume comes out. The things we wrap in tissue and tinsel are not toys and ornaments, but tenderness and love and the wish to bring happiness to others.

All the spirit of Christmas, to me, is in that exquisite story of O. Henry’s, “The Gift of the Magi,” about the man who sold his watch to buy side combs for his wife’s beautiful hair, while his wife was selling her hair to buy a gold fob for his treasured watch.

Since our own cheerless Christmas journey, I’ve found a good many other people who have tried to spend Christmas in Taormina, in some manner of speaking. But I’ve never known one who will ever try it again. A dear, wise woman I know had a letter from a friend who said he’d decided “Christmas is a nuisance” and was asking all his friends to ignore him on that occasion. At Christmas, the woman wrote him: “I’m disregarding your request, so that you may have one message of love and remembrance on what you are going to find the emptiest day you have ever experienced.” Before night, she received an almost tearful telegram saying she was right.

Christmas, when you come to think of it, is an annual miracle: an annual rebirth of Christ. At the sign of clock and calendar, millions of us who give little thought to religion the rest of the year find ourselves remembering the Star and the Wise Men. For a time, the meanest of us become generous, the most relentless become forgiving. Even the men in tanks and bombing planes pause, if only an instant, to remember home – to realize that there are such things as homes.

No, Christmas in Taormina is no good, unless you belong in Taormina and your heart dwells there. That goes for Timbuktu, Tasmania and Tillamook, Oregon, too. For when you really escape Christmas, you escape humankind.

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A 1930s Secret Santa: the Christmas Story of Mr. B. Virdot

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn more about a wonderful Christmas story from the midst of the Great Depression: one man in Canton, Ohio, decided to do something to help his struggling neighbors that Christmas. And he did it anonymously.

There’s no doubt the sting of the Great Depression years was felt by families of all socio-economic levels in the United States. The severe economic downturn was a great equalizer and affected everyone – from the formerly well-off, country club member business man to the common laborer. That pain of crushing poverty would have felt even harsher during the holidays.

In 1933 one man in Canton, Ohio, decided to do something to help his neighbors at Christmas. Secretly under an assumed name, this man placed a newspaper ad, opened a bank account with $750, and proceeded to give away this money to those in need. While many families after the fact wrote letters thanking him, it wasn’t until 70 years later that the identity of this mysterious “Secret Santa” and the full impact of his generosity were uncovered through family history research.

The Christmas Gift

A week prior to Christmas, on 18 December 1933 in the Canton Ohio Repository, an advertisement was published titled “In Consideration of the White Collar Man” that invites those having financial difficulties to receive a check by sending a letter to B. Virdot, General Delivery, providing information about their circumstances.

an ad to help people financially struggling at Christmas during the Great Depression, Repository newspaper advertisement 18 December 1933

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 18 December 1933, page 3

That newspaper advertisement was not the only mention of this holiday gift in the paper that day. On the front page, a story about B. Virdot provides more information about the advertisement which ran only that one day. It begins:

A Canton man who was toppled from a large fortune to practically nothing but whom returning prosperity has helped fight back to wealth and comfort, has a Christmas present waiting for 75 deserving fellow townsmen.

The old news article continues on to say that this Christmas gift is one with no “strings, no embarrassment,” $10 to 75 families in need.* The holiday gift is meant for “men, like the giver, have once held responsible positions, have been deprived of their income through general economic conditions, but who hesitate to knock at charity’s door for aid.” The historical news article explains that the name “B. Virdot” is fictitious but the donor is a local businessman who has known financial difficulties and, with the help of others, has recovered and now wants to share that gift with others.

Man Who Felt Depression's Sting to Help 75 Unfortunate Families, Repository newspaper article 18 December 1933

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 18 December 1933, page 1

News of this Christmas gift was carried in other newspapers, with coverage continuing well after the fact. For example, in the early part of 1934 notice of B. Virdot’s generosity was printed in this Pennsylvania newspaper.

Once Hit by Hard Times, He Now Opens His Purse, National Labor Tribune newspaper article 24 February 1934

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 24 February 1934, page 5

The Family History

Normally, the touching Christmas story would end there: impoverished families receive generous gift from anonymous donor. What more could be said, in a case like that with no real name to track down? Letters written requesting assistance are ephemeral, and easily thrown away once read.

Fast forward 70 years when Ted Gup, a writer and newspaper reporter, was given a suitcase by his mother. The suitcase, belonging to his maternal grandfather, held family history documents that were of interest to Gup. But once opened, he also found letters from 1933, written by 150 people whose surnames he recognized as coming from his hometown  of Canton, Ohio, and all addressed to B. Virdot – a name unknown to him.** Why did his grandfather have these letters?

Through research and talking with his mother, Gup learned the magnitude of those letters. The true identity and miraculous secret kept all those years was that “B. Virdot” was his grandfather, Sam Stone, a Jewish Romanian immigrant who knew all too well about hardship. Amazingly, his selfless act not only helped people he didn’t know but also helped once-wealthy businessmen who were his acquaintances – but they never knew the identity of their benefactor.

Gup’s book, A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – and a Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression (2011), tells the story of not only his own family but also the present-day families of those helped by the B. Virdot checks. The research used to piece together these stories includes methods familiar to family historians: oral interviews, vital records, land records, and of course newspapers.

Another Lasting Legacy

Often when we research family history its impact is felt by us and those family members that we share it with. One of the big lessons of the story of B. Virdot/Sam Stone and the research done by his grandson is that it’s a mistake to not take into consideration our ancestor’s community. Friends, neighbors and acquaintances all had an impact on their lives. Ted Gup, by following up with the descendants of those check recipients, many of whom knew nothing about that aspect of their ancestor’s life, also gave back something important to those families, as his grandfather had done 70 years ago. He gave them the story of an event in the family’s life. By providing them the information from the letter, written in their ancestor’s own words, and the research of what happened after the gift, those families received something much more valuable.

You can read more about Ted Gup’s book at his website A Secret Gift. Copies of some of the letters can be found on the website. The letters and Gup’s research were donated to the Stark County Historical Society at the William McKinley Presidential Library in Canton. A list of the letter writers can be found on their Curator’s Corner blog.

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* Originally the checks were to be $10 to 75 families, but because of the demonstrated need, 150 families received a $5 check which still was generous for the time.
** Gup’s book explains that the letters in the suitcase represent everyone who received a check. It is not known if there were other letters from people who were not chosen to receive a check.

Christmas Toys & Gifts from Yesteryear in Old Newspaper Ads

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to find advertisements for the toys our ancestors wanted for Christmas.

There’s no doubt that Christmas is more exciting when you are young. There’s the anticipation of getting that special toy or two from your Christmas list. The thrill of running from your room to the Christmas tree that morning to see what Santa brought you. My guess is that December was one of the months you looked forward to growing up.

What was your favorite gift as a child? I’m amazed when I look through old newspapers – like those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives – to see how similar the toys are to ones sold now.

1930 Toy Store Has Everything

In the vintage holiday newspaper advertisement for the Cullum & Boren Co. below, toys including footballs, magic sets, and dolls are all items you would see on modern-day kids’ lists. Sure, not everything is the same; there are a few items that are specific to that time period, like big bang tractors and keystone toys. What’s interesting is that while today’s retailers appeal to parents’ pocketbooks by claiming low prices, in this advertisement the store boasts of having everything from 25-cent toys to the most “elaborate and expensive on the market.” I guess that’s a 1930s way of saying they have something for everyone.

Christmas toys ad, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisement 7 December 1930

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 7 December 1930, section: Society, Art, Music, Amusements, Radio, page 3

Toys for “Real Boys”

For those who like their children’s toys educational, this 1919 Christmas advertisement for the A. C. Gilbert Company asserts that “real boys want real toys – not mere playthings…” These toys mimic occupations that would help a boy grow to “useful manhood.” While some of the toys mentioned lean toward the fanciful, like the magic set, others – like the chemistry, soldering and wireless sets – would have had more latter-day applications for young boys. Notice that one of the toys mentioned is a machine gun:

A real machine gun, shooting wooden bullets in clips from an air cooled chamber. Modeled after the famous Browning gun. Swivels around to fire in any direction and at different elevations. Fires ten shots a second but is not dangerous… it will delight any red-blooded boy.

Christmas toys ad, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper advertisement 14 December 1919

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 December 1919, page 25

Toy Makers: Disabled British Soldiers

There are always surprises to be found in old newspapers that educate us about the social history of the time. In this Christmas toy advertisement imploring parents to shop now to get toys that will “gladden the hearts of children,” there is also a mention at the bottom of the ad about new toys from England. These children’s toys are made by British soldiers “disabled at the front.” This 1918 advertisement from the Halle Bros. Co. would have served as a poignant reminder to readers that the pain and suffering caused by World War I meant that not everyone was having a merry Christmas. The war ended three days after this newspaper ad was published.

Christmas toys ad, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 8 November 1918

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 November 1918, page 2

Christmas Shopping Countdown

Are you a last-minute Christmas shopper? Christmas falls on December 25 each year but inevitably the stores are saturated with shoppers picking up those last-minute holiday gifts in the days and hours before the big day. Seems this was true for our ancestors as well. This old advertisement from Herpolsheimer’s, published just two days before Christmas, urges Michigan shoppers to hurry (“shop in the morning if possible”) for their toy trains, doll chests, pop guns, and ice skates.

Christmas toys ad, Grand Rapids Press newspaper advertisement 23 December 1910

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 23 December 1910, page 14

The Toy Department

One of the common themes of Christmas advertising from generations past is the opening of the toy department. These announcements, including a list of featured toys, can be found in many old newspaper advertisements. This 1914 example encourages adults to bring their children – or even other people’s children – to see the new and complete toy department. Wolf, Wile & Co. were opening their re-stocked toy department on November 30 to give shoppers a start on their Christmas shopping, promising that their “largest and finest assortments of toys we have ever had” make their toy department:

The Land of Toys—the Land of Joys—
The Land of Delight for girls and boys.

Christmas toys ad, Lexington Herald newspaper advertisement 29 November 1914

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 29 November 1914, section 3, page 6

Christmas No Longer as Exciting?

And of course Christmas wish lists aren’t just for the kids. But it would seem that once you become an adult your wish list becomes more “practical.” In this 1906 holiday advertisement from The Emporium, we are provided with ideas for gifts for the “older folks” like dishes, pots & pans, glasses and silverware. This vintage newspaper ad reminds you that you should “Get mother something that she will appreciate and that may be enjoyed by the whole family.”

Christmas gifts ad, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper advertisement 1 December 1906

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 1 December 1906, page 6

Yep, that’s just what we mothers like: pots, pans or something the whole family will enjoy (sarcasm fully intended). What’s on your Christmas wish list this year?

Merry Christmas!

Related Christmas Gift Articles & Resources:

DIY Project: Your Own Holiday Family Advent Calendar

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary uses ideas and graphics from old newspapers to show how you can make your own Advent calendar for this holiday season.

One of the great joys of the holidays is the anticipation of what is to come!

My family celebrates Christmas, and one of my fondest memories is the childish expectation of seeing what is behind each door of the family Advent calendar. Day by day, we’d open a door or window to see what surprise awaited us. This family time was special and gave our parents an opportunity to discuss Christmas with us.

Christmas is only 25 days away, and the first door on the holiday Advent calendar can be opened tonight—so you have time today to make your own Advent calendar!

Many people receive their Advent calendars as gifts, and others elect to purchase them. However, they are very easy to make—so why not try making your own this year? Historical newspapers are a fun place to find a background setting or to locate clipart for the surprises behind each door.

Craft Supplies

Your family Advent calendar can be made with easy-to-find household supplies—or for more elaborate designs, these items can be found at a craft store:

  • Poster board, construction or craft paper
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Small craft embellishments

Calendar Style

Before starting, pick a style. As this newspaper article from 1972 demonstrates, you could craft poster board into a free-standing triptych reminiscent of a cathedral. Other ideas are to make wall calendars or to strap together construction paper using one page for each day of Advent.

article about Advent calendars, State Times Advocate newspaper article 2 December 1972

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 2 December 1972, page 13

Newspaper Images

Another idea is to find a traditional picture, either in your own collection or from GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

drawing of a Romanesque-style church in Cleveland, Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 October 1890

Cleveland Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 October 1890, page 8

This church image stems from an 1890 design of a Romanesque church located at the corner of Willson Avenue and Prospect Street in Cleveland, Ohio. Since many early structures are threatened with destruction, this also serves as an opportunity to introduce a history lesson. Follow this link to learn more about Cleveland history:

article about a Romanesque-style church in Cleveland, Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 October 1890

Cleveland Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 October 1890, page 8

Calendar Images

The choice of images for the Advent calendar is only limited by your imagination. Early newspaper advertisements, and particularly those for toys, are easily found and can be matched to the same year as your image.

toys ad, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper advertisement 13 December 1890

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 13 December 1890, page 1

Religious and more traditional selections can also be found in the newspaper archives. Search for nativity, bells, creche, manger and other appropriate keywords!

church images, Times-Picayune newspaper article 18 December 1898

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 18 December 1898, page 32

If you have been inspired to make your own holiday Advent calendar, or have fond memories of using one as a child, be sure to let us know in the comments section and share your ideas!

Holiday Genealogy Gift Ideas Pt. 1: Visual Family Timelines

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary presents the first in a series of genealogy holiday gift ideas: a project to create a historical visual timeline of one or more of your ancestors’ lives.

The countdown clock to the winter holidays is ticking, and if you want to have time to prepare a genealogy gift for your family, you had better get started.

But if you’re like most people, finishing a family history by a looming deadline is a daunting task. So don’t overwhelm yourself—pick a “doable” genealogy project, one that can be completed in a weekend and long before Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah.

Places of My Ancestor’s Life Booklet

The first genealogy gift idea I’m presenting (there will be more in upcoming blog articles) is a project to create a historical visual timeline of one or more of your ancestors’ lives. You can do this by taking images, presenting them in chronological order, and making them into a small booklet.

I’m lucky to have an impressive collection of images from my family’s past, but don’t worry if you don’t have the same—let GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives and public images from the National Archives tell your tale by supplementing the story with period images of places your family frequented.

photo of an old house with the caption "If These Four Walls Could Talk, They'd Tell a Thousand Tales"

Source: from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

1) Step one is to pick a creative title. If you are stumped, you are welcome to select one of these.

  • Ancestral Home Towns
  • If Walls Could Talk
  • Life in the Past Lane
  • Gleanings from Grandma & Grandpa’s Lives
  • Now and Then: A Look at Where They Lived and Where We Live
  • Old House Tales
  • The Past Is Present Again
  • What Did Our Ancestors’ Home Towns Look Like?

2) Figure out where your ancestors were during specific eras. Create a timeline showing birth, marriage and death dates, but focus on the “dash,” or what occurred between birth – death. (See Linda Ellis’ copyrighted poem at her website www.linda-ellis.com/the-dash-the-dash-poem-by-linda-ellis-.html.)

3) Target hometown hangouts. Did your family get married in a special church or synagogue, or attend special events such as rodeos or the World’s Fair? Did they conduct business at the market, sail from a wharf, or travel cross country in a wagon train? Use these clues to match locations to events that corresponded to their lives.

If you can’t find anything pertinent, find something from a person who had a strong influence in their lives. For example, this photo was taken on a family visit to Poland in 1999. Our guide was a history professor who said that Oskar Schindler lived in the apartment building to the left. If your family was affected by the Holocaust, you have my permission to use it in your visual timeline with proper credit.

photo of the Krakow, Poland, apartment building where Oskar Schindler lived

Photo: the Krakow, Poland, apartment building (on left) where Oskar Schindler lived, taken in 1999. Source: from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

4) Are any sites still there that would be familiar to your family? Search for un-copyrighted images in public archives and older newspaper archives. You might also try searching HistoryPin to find images and see what these places looked like in the past. Then contrast those images with current photographs that you have taken yourself or have permission to use. Tip: network on social media sites to see if any friends can take out-of-your-area photos for you to use.

5) Add historical maps to pinpoint events and locations during your ancestors’ lives. Everyone loves to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors and you’ll find an interesting selection in GenealogyBank’s Historical Maps section.

map showing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's trip to the Pacific coast, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 4 October 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 4 October 1937, page 2

6) Compile your image findings into sequential order. Add appropriate captions, and consider keeping them short to inspire the younger set to pursue genealogy.

7) Create a family history scrapbook, or upload this new family heirloom to an online service that creates photo books on demand. Your family will enjoy this special genealogy gift for many years to come.

The following are examples to inspire you.


If your family came early to America, they probably went through Massachusetts or settled in one of that state’s many historic cities. Perhaps they visited the house shown below, that was built in 1666 and still owned by the Moulton family in 1905. Its style is reminiscent of the John Howland House, built the same year in Plymouth.

article about the Moulton family home, Patriot newspaper article 13 October 1905

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 13 October 1905, page 12

New Jersey

Because of its delightful history, the Trenton Times ran a series on “Old Landmarks Around Town.” If you have Trenton roots, take time to read them. Example Number 48 below, reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, displays a Quaker meeting house that existed when Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776.

article about the Quaker meeting house in Trenton, New Jersey, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 29 July 1897

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 29 July 1897, page 3


There are few states in our country with more history than Pennsylvania, and especially Philadelphia. So pull photos of Philly’s past, along with supplemental articles and advertisements.

An example is this advertisement for the Franklin Restaurant and Cafe which opened in 1842 at 105 Chestnut Street. Although no longer there, click the link to see where this address is in relation to the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing.

The Franklin Restaurant and Cafe, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 13 June 1842

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 13 June 1842, page 1

By 1897, many of Philadelphia’s early landmarks were disappearing. This old news article mentions a familiar view at the southeast corner of Broad and Chestnut Streets.

The caption notes that there was a railroad ticket office in this building, and that it was the setting for the old Cornucopia Restaurant which fed the populace in large numbers. If your family was in this area during the 19th Century, it is likely they partook of at least one meal in this establishment, or met at the tavern that had been there previously. Taverns were popular meeting places and served as backdrops for many of the meetings of our founding fathers.

Old Landmarks Disappearing, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 29 July 1897

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 29 July 1897, page 3

Diaries and Journeys

If you find enough material from your ancestors’ home towns, stop there. However, an interesting addition would be to add images from journeys made across country, or quotes from period diaries such as this one:

13th Oct. (1858). A drive of six miles brought us to Paint Rock, where we pass into Tennessee. Near Paint Rock we pass the chimney rocks, a great curiosity; they are in North Carolina. The Paint Rock is said to be 1000 feet high and appears to lean over the road, in fact looks dangerous, but I presume it was planted there until eternity by our Creator. Day’s travel 18 miles. We take the road to Dewetts Bridge, and camp for the day.

—from the diary of John C. Darr

See: http://www.argenweb.net/pope/wagon.html

If your family journeyed west or elsewhere, get inspired by weaving their travels into your tale. Include memories of the adventure, and if you are not fortunate to have a family diary, quote one from the time period. Add images such as prairies, wagon trains or even locomotives, many of which are found in old newspapers.

article about antique trains, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 9 July 1893

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 July 1893, page 23

Happy Holidays to one and all, and good luck with your holiday genealogy gift projects!

Related Genealogy Gifts Articles:

Exploring & Preserving Family History with Christmas Cards

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about the history of Christmas cards, illustrating her article with vintage Christmas cards from her own collection.

What’s your favorite part of the holiday season? The decorations? The food? Time with family? I must confess that my favorite part is giving and receiving Christmas cards. I know that sounds odd but I really enjoy Christmas cards. I love simple ones made at home, those bought from the store, and even the lengthy family letters full of boasting and news. The ones that include photos are always a favorite because you can see how families have changed over the years.

a vintage Christmas card

Who Invented the Christmas Card?

The first Christmas card was designed by J. C. Horsley in 1843 England at the request of his friend Henry Cole, who wanted an easy way to send out greetings to his family and friends.* A card from that first set just sold at auction for nearly $7,000. Whether you currently send a photo card, a handmade card, a custom-designed card, or one you picked up at a discount retailer, Christmas cards have long been a way to keep in touch with family and friends during the holiday season. In some cases they have also been something to collect; one of the most famous collections was assembled by Queen Mary and is now housed at the British Museum.

a vintage Christmas card

Christmas Card History in Newspapers

You can learn about the history of Christmas cards by searching through old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. Consider this newspaper article instructing readers to order their Christmas cards in November. While we are accustomed to holiday cards with either religious or seasonal designs (such as snowmen or Santa Claus), this was not always the case with Christmas cards. This article gives ideas for card designs including a “sketch made of an attractive nook in your house or garden.” The article’s author says that Christmas cards will be more popular in that year (1917) than ever before because of WWI: “…for many of us will wish to send this slight remembrance to the men who have gone to France or to the training camps, and many of us will wish to remember the families of the same men to at least this extent.”

Order Your Christmas Cards, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 8 November 1917

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 8 November 1917, page 9

a vintage Christmas card

Christmas Card Design

Many people have an opinion about Christmas cards. Some people only like the ones depicting religious themes; others prefer ones that include an annual letter or photo. Even the generations prior to us had their preferences. Maybe you feel the same as Betty Bellaire who remarks in her 1919 article that, while she loves Christmas cards of all kinds, she doesn’t like to receive ones where “the sender has not taken the trouble to write a single word of personal greeting.” I too believe in the importance of those added personal greetings and agree with her that Christmas cards are a “mental reunion with that big circle of friends whom one meets, enjoys and then, through forces of inevitable circumstance, loses touch with as one is swept along through the various phases of one’s life.” It would seem that even our ancestors felt the constraints and stresses of time.

A Few Words on Christmas Cards, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 24 December 1919

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 24 December 1919, page 12

a vintage Christmas card

Genealogy Tip: Save Your Family’s Christmas Cards

In January when the Yule time decorations seem to show their age, what do you do with your holiday cards? One thing to consider is to save them to preserve the signatures for future family history. Those signatures and comments may have some meaning for your family as people age and families change. You could also take some of the suggestions in this 1914 newspaper article, such as: making bookmarks, creating wallpaper, or sending them to a charity that reuses them for craft projects. In this article, Booker T. Washington recommends sending the cards to Southern schools, hospitals and homes. A quick search on the Internet may help you to find other modern-day charities that would welcome your cards.

Ways to Use Christmas Cards Suggested, Oregonian newspaper article 11 January 1914

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 11 January 1914, page 6

Happy Holidays!

[Editor’s note: the vintage Christmas cards illustrating this article are all from the author’s collection.]


* Buday, George. The History of the Christmas Card. London: Spring Books. 1965.

Christmas Family Reunion Articles Are Rich Genealogy Resources

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to show how much valuable family history information is provided by family reunion stories newspapers routinely printed around Christmas time.

The end of the year seems like the perfect time to renew acquaintances and hold reunions with family and friends. Even though families find it difficult to find time to get together throughout the year for other events like birthdays or anniversaries, Christmas is a time when people are more likely to make the effort to take a trip home. The other benefit of the Holiday season is that for many who normally would have to take vacation time off from work to travel, the Christmas/New Year’s holidays may mean some flexibility with work obligations. So the Holiday season is a great time to plan a family reunion.

The idea of a December family reunion is not a new one. Sure, it’s made easier with modern transportation conveniences, but it was a common occurrence in the late 19th to early 20th century, as shown by many newspaper stories at that time. These Christmas family reunion articles are a great way for family historians to catch a glimpse into the daily lives of their ancestors. A bonus for the genealogist is that these family reunion articles often included the names of all those in attendance. Even short newspaper announcements can contain genealogically rich information that could be of assistance to descendants.

I did a search for Christmas family reunions in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, and found many delightful examples.

Newspapers report on the lives of a community as well as the celebrities and leaders of a nation. So it’s not surprising that a Christmas family reunion in the White House was newsworthy. For Christmas 1910, newspapers nationwide reported that President Howard Taft had a reunion with his three children, Robert, Helen and Charles, at the White House—complete with a turkey dinner. The only thing missing was the Christmas tree because, as the article notes, the children were “older.”

Christmas at White House: Tafts to Hold Family Reunion and Partake of Turkey Dinner, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 25 December 1910

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 25 December 1910, page 2

While there are countless examples of newspaper articles detailing a family reunion, this one in the Social Affairs column of a 1903 newspaper caught my eye. In the historical newspaper article we find the mention of 13 separate family gatherings. One of the stories, reporting on the dinner at A. Galloway’s, mentions who was there (four generations were present), and reports that the Christmas reunion was leading up to some noteworthy wedding anniversaries. The A. C. Galloways and the A. Galloways would be celebrating their 67th and 56th wedding anniversary in 1904, respectively. It might seem like a breach of etiquette to modern readers but the addition of the words “if they live” came after that statement. If one needed any more hints revealing how old these two couples were, the last sentence of the article notes: “The combined ages of the four is 334 years.”

article about a Christmas family reunion hosted by A. Galloway, Daily Telegram newspaper article 28 December 1903

Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan), 28 December 1903, page 2

Maybe you are planning a family reunion of your own this season. Chances are it won’t be as large as this one, reported in a 1922 newspaper. Mrs. M. J. Nash had 91 family members attend her Christmas reunion! Lucky for any of her present-day descendants, the list of those who attended was printed in the newspaper.

The newspaper article concludes by saying she gave everyone in attendance a gift “by which to remember her.”

[Christmas Family Reunion]: Ninety-one Relatives Gather at Home of Mrs. M. J. Nash, Oregonian newspaper article 31 December 1922

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 31 December 1922, section 3, page 9

The old newspaper article about Mrs. Nash’s Christmas family reunion wasn’t the only one I found that included the names of other family members in attendance. This 1921 Christmas reunion article for the family of Mr. and Mrs. John Stanford included the names of those who attended and the number of children they had. As a genealogist, this historical newspaper article is very appealing since it also provides the couple’s street address and a sentence reporting on a family photo that was taken and who was in the photo: “A picture of the host and hostess, with their sons and daughters, grouped about them, was also another feature, and this should be a pleasant reminder for the parents of the event.”

Christmas [Stanford Family] Reunion Delightful Affair, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 28 December 1921

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 28 December 1921, page 6

Did your ancestor hold a Christmas family reunion? This fact may not be known to your present-day family—but if it did occur there’s a good chance it and the names of all gathered can be found in their local newspaper. Finding such an article full of relatives’ names would be a great genealogy gift to receive, something that would make any family historian smile.