A Genealogist’s Christmas Tale

The blog editor’s son
aged 4 years with “Santa.”

I recently binge-watched the entire television  series “Lie to Me.” It is a crime-drama series about a brilliant though blunt man who is a deception expert. He looks into peoples faces and notices the almost invisible twitches, tics and involuntary body language that shows him when or if people lie.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a similar “truth test” for genealogy? But first a question–is there a need for one? Genealogists always tell the truth. At least I do. Well, I mostly do. I confess that I may, from time to time, not reveal certain things I discover. Is that the same as lying?

I fondly remember my mother’s words.  She spoke to me in the sweetest of tones. “Janice Ann (oh watch out when your middle name is spoken).” She was talking to me about my latest genealogy find, that once again contradicted her excellent memory of days gone by. “Janice Ann, I prefer my version of the past. Please don’t share anything more.” She had expressed her disapproval so politely to me, and so of course I did as she asked.

Really, in the end what is more important? Holding on to the lovely beliefs we have about our family, or letting them fall to ashes and taking a bit of someone’s joy with them. So you grew up thinking you and a sister shared the same birthday, and spent many years basking in the love of sharing a cake, only to have your daughter show you the birth certificate that proved that to be entirely wrong by an entire day.  Or your cousin had been telling his kids for years about their wonderfully precious grand-mother, only to have someone inform you that she was really his great-grandmother who adopted his father when his mother died and his father took off.  This essential truth I shared with a cousin, who no longer speaks to me.  Janice Ann, you are such a spoil sport.

A recent study shows that 98% of people tell lies so not to offend people. When is being entirely truthful about genealogy, or not truthful, offensive? Which is worse–not telling the entire truth, or leaving out some great family revelation?

Victorian holiday card

I will never forget when my son, aged 4, asked if Santa Claus was a real person. That is exactly how he asked the question, and I knew what he meant. He didn’t want a fairy tale, or a hypothetical answer. He wanted the real and ultimate truth. I, of course, had no primary evidence to prove or disprove, but I knew all the same. We’d gone that day to see Santa in a department store. My son stared at him for a long while as the fake-white-bearded man prattled on and ho-ho-hoed. He’d seen a real beard, heck his own father had one. He didn’t have to even tug on it to know. Four year olds are very smart.

So, back to my dilemma. My son had a full year before figured it all out about the Easter Bunny. We’d raised real rabbits so he knew their behaviors. He would know if I lied. Darn Capricorn know-it-alls.

I hedged. I told him first about the historical Santa–Saint Nicholas, and then about some traditions in Europe brought to the United States. For a four year old, he was very patient. He listened then waited without saying a word. So I continued on and explained that the man on whose lap he had sat earlier in the day was not really Santa Claus, just a man playing Santa. I was a bit apologetic in explaining I’d taken him because I felt it was a parental duty to do the whole Santa-thing. I also emphasized that now I trusted him not to share his new-found knowledge with the world. That some people wanted their kids to believe in Santa for as long as possible, and they would be very cranky if someone told their children the truth.

Long pause again. Finally he seemed relieved, smiled and said, “Mom, I knew this already, but wanted to hear you tell me. I still get presents, right?”

So where am I going with this, you are wondering. It has to do with genealogy. People who are genealogy aficionados work with primary evidence to prove relationships beyond a reasonable doubt, and to tell a story about a person’s life. Often they also tie the person’s life in with real history. But I am willing to bet that those same 98% of people who lie, also would omit what they consider to be “bad stuff” from their genealogy. When is that okay, and when is it not?

I remember having an email discussion with a Goff Family descendant whose ancestor was a Loyalist.  He was well-respected physician who lost his property as a result, but was allowed to remain in the country without imprisonment. All of this was left out of the published book on the family, though enough details were included that it was obvious the author knew about it.

We freak out when people react badly on Genealogy Television shows when those inevitable skeletons fall out of the closet, yet we hide many things ourselves. I know, for example, that at least one married member of my family contracted a social disease while serving in the military. Would you include that in your genealogy or leave it out? I have the primary evidence, his military record describing his treatment, when and where. How do you draw the line about what is shareable and what is not?

When human values contradict each other, sometimes it becomes more about not hurting someone, saving face, and keeping the peace in the family. This frequently applies to genealogy, and yet so few genealogists talk about it. These questions have little to do with the genealogy proof standard, and more to do with what proved items do you share, or not share. It has to do with what is more important–sharing everything without hesitation, or withholding some things that would hurt, harm or upset.

At some point in our genealogical research we all face this conundrum. Will you tell the truth or just omit it from the story? Will you tell a four year old that Santa is not a real person, or pretend he is? Will your family clap when you tell them that their patriarch fooled around while in the military and needed hospitalization?  I think I know the answer.

Wishing you, and all of my readers, an honest and wonderful Holiday Season.


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10 Responses to A Genealogist’s Christmas Tale

  1. We protect the living and in some cases we protect them and their deceased loved ones in lying by omission. We can write the stories, hopefully from a well-researched point of view, and leave them to be shared when all who could be hurt are no longer. Thank you, Janice Ann, for a wonderful read this Christmas morning.

  2. Eileen Souza says:

    Thank you for this post. It really makes one think. Season’s Greetings to you and yours.

  3. Amy says:

    Merry Christmas, Janice! And great post. I wrote about this issue three and a half years ago, and I still refer to this post when faced with the question of what to reveal. Maybe you will find it helpful, and in any event, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  4. Firelands says:

    An Emily Dickinson poem sums up my feelings about this conundrum:

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind –

    Happy Holidays to you and your’s, Janice. I always enjoy your posts, and look forward to more in the coming new year.

  5. Very insightful (and I would say necessary) post. I fall squarely in the omit it if it would hurt someone camp. I use those uncomfortable revelations as inspiration for fiction. By the time the fiction writing process has worked its magic, the person or event that inspired it is no longer recognizable.

  6. Thanks for a very thoughtful post, Janice. I have walked the line with the information about my mother’s never spoken of divorce before she married our father. My brother does not think it should be public. I think she wouldn’t care. But to spare him, I have done the research and written it up just for my sister (who would be glad to make it public) and brother, but not on my blog.
    And by the way, I distinctly remember when I was four pretending to believe in Santa so as not to disappoint the adults. True story!

  7. Luanne says:

    What an important subject to discuss! I have shared some unpleasant information on my blog and in my book that uses genealogical research. I may have upset some people unintentionally. I say unintentionally because my viewpoint is not necessarily the same as others, so I can’t predict how someone else will react. That said, I found a whole family of alcoholics in one of my branches from the early 1800s. I have not shared this on my blog because I think it would hurt some people who have been harmed by this disease in recent years. However, I am still debating this (with myself) because my basic philosophy is that the more informed we are about our present and our past, the more we can make decisions that affect our future.
    By the way, I LOVE the Dickinson poem David shared and, in fact, had thought of using a quote from it for my memoir (which again uses genealogical research, but is not a fully completed manuscript).

  8. billwest says:

    Great post, Janice!

  9. June Saxon says:

    I enjoyed reading about this subject Janice. Merry Christmas! I love reading your blogs.

  10. brian o says:

    I was thinking of my father while reading this. Just a few years before he died he found out that he had a half sister of whom he had never been told. He lived his whole life in Manchester, she lived hers nearby – she died a few months before he learned of her. Keeping skeletons in the closet probably worked for those who put them there, but took a little piece of his heart too.

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