It was nearly 100 years before DNA tests could tell us with precision about our exact family history that short story writer William Sydney Porter, “O.Henry,” illustrated family love and the spirit of sacrifice in his wonderful work, “The Gift of the Magi.” In that story, a young couple separately sold their most prized possessions to have the wherewithal to purchase something special for the other. The Magi in the title referred to the rich and wise said to have bestowed gifts upon the baby Jesus.
During the holidays, if we want to give long lasting and even transformational gifts, we can easily prepare family history-related offerings even as we have the privilege of gathering with and remembering family members.  (In fact, many of our distant ancestors were married on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve because Christmas was one of about three work holidays during the year.)
Meaningful Family History Gifts
We can share treasured family artifacts and documents, or custom calendars or booklets filled with historic family history photos. We can create videos of our family activities this year so that children and grandchildren can see, 50+ years hence, how the family sounded, how it interacted, and what it treasured during the holidays.
Do we have any new grandchildren in the family?  If we haven’t done so already, we can “document ourselves,” providing something as simple as a typed four-page personal history of our own lives that will delight descendants in a different era. We can have a family or individual portrait made.   And some of these gifts may also be shared with the broader family circle across the world through Facebook, family trees, and broader social media. In fact, we can create private family history or reunion Facebook pages to continue the sharing.
Customized Family History Travel/Research
If we are traveling to share holidays with other family members in Arkansas or elsewhere, we may be where our ancestors lived. As Joe David Rice has described in AY, Arkansas boasts many scenic and interesting areas for the holidays.
If traveling to see family areas this holiday, we are thrice blessed. We can take an extra day or two (or more) to see our family places in local communities, and extend our learning with wonderful heritage tourism in the area. And more: we can visit libraries, historical associations or archives to seek local information about our ancestors that has eluded us or is not yet online. (Most are closed only a few days during the holidays.)
READ MORE: Explore Heritage Travel
This three-pronged process of discovery is called genealogy travel, and nearly everyone who’s lucky enough to experience it builds treasured memories: there is nothing quite like standing where long-ago ancestors have walked. It helps us understand the very contours of their lives. It also provides more understanding about who we ourselves are—our family’s broader historic identity.
We might be standing in a Civil War field, or on a farm, or in a church where an ancestor was baptized or a cemetery where family are buried.  We might be reading an ancestor’s diary.  When we do this with our children and grandchildren, involving them in research and travel, we encourage an interest and good habits that will enable them to preserve, enhance, and pass on the family’s history. Younger family members are often engaged by the sharing technology that makes family history more fun and easier.
Getting Started: Family History Building Block Gifts
If we’ve been meaning to learn more about our family history, to go through the boxes in attics or basements, investigate grandfather’s war service, seek out more information on the women’s roles in our families, the holidays provide the inspiration to do it, starting now.  And to help ourselves and other family members succeed, we can build a new family tree (if we don’t already have one) online at,, or plenty of other sites where history lives.
We can give memberships to the family history and historic newspaper web sites that will make searches easier and more fruitful more quickly, making progress and encouraging investigation and preservation.These trees and information can even be saved to our phones and tablets so that when we make new discoveries away from home, we can conveniently capture and add them.
If we don’t have a clue about some of our family’s ancestors, we can begin with purchasing DNA tests (all on sale during the holidays) from one of the many companies that provide them. Before doing that, we should prepare ourselves for some surprises.
The tests will give us family origins insights, but also later an opportunity to make connections with cousins online that we didn’t know we had if we choose to attach DNA information to family trees.  “New extended family” often have family history information about our own family lines, as family history is sometimes handed off to unexpected family members.
When we later meet them as part of genealogy travel, it is satisfying and illuminating to realize the reach of DNA across the country and around the world. It’s the one unique attribute we all inherited that no one can take away from us.
As we begin building (or rebuilding or adding to) our genealogy, we often find the most wonderful and astounding surprises and people. This family gift giving and connection opportunity may not be as intense as the one O.Henry showcased in “The Gift of the Magi” On the other hand, what if it’s 1000 times greater?
READ MORE: Crowdsourcing Your Family History
Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who is also on the boards of the Arkansas Genealogical Society and the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas.