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Christmas Traditions

How Did Your Ancestors Celebrate the Holidays?

Our holiday celebrations today may be rooted in family traditions of yesteryear. For instance, did you know during the late 19th century into the 20th that towns would order train cars of citrus for Christmas?

Crates of oranges were sent on trains each Christmas season

My grandparents lived in snowy Minnesota. Parents in their village collaborated to order crates of oranges sent on trains each Christmas season. Children would get so excited to find a single orange in their stocking. Sometimes the only present they would get during tough years. 

Through the generations, this tradition has continued. I found an orange each Christmas in my stocking, too! My Swedish grandmother would tell me how joyful they were to get something so precious. I felt her joy and loved my annual orange just as much. The citrus also helped avoid rickets and illness until fresh foods could be available again. So, the tradition was about more than a yummy piece of fruit. It was also part of survival. But the light in her eyes shone each time as if she were living it for the first time. I basked in the exuberance and warmth of her emotion. My grandpa would nod and smile at the memory, too. 

Family photo is of my great grandmother, Amalia, and her parents and siblings. These are the people who would be excited to give an orange to a child. This tradition could be many generations deep by now. These people spoke Swedish.

The above woman is my grandmother, Maybelle, first born Swedish-American after her family emigrated. She sparkled with joy over the memory of a single orange as her Christmas gift for many Christmases. Born in 1904, she lived well into her 90s. 

Fast forward to my children and grandchildren now. A few Christmases ago, my son asked why we get oranges when they are so basic and not everyone likes them. I realized my error. I had passed on the tradition without the social story surrounding it. So, I now tell the story of how precious oranges came on trains so parents could give them to children who had so little; no fresh foods because there was not a way to get them, and how the whole town would meet those trains with utter celebration, passing oranges to each other to surprise their children. How a juicy orange was a deeply hoped for and appreciated gift. 

Our oranges morphed to chocolate oranges a few years back, too. But I am making sure the next two generations know why we give oranges at Christmas. Why do we light Advent candles? This tradition comes from my Swedish ancestors and the faith they displayed. It is all about the stories!

Do you know the social stories of your ancestors? Do you know why certain traditions exist? They are not just lost to you. The International Institute of Genealogical Studies has courses like Research: Social HistoryDNA: Historical Studies, and more that can help you learn your family history and traditions. 

Social History Classes are available at the International Institute of Genealogical Studies

The best gift you have to give is not the next best video game. Give a sense of belonging and understanding, and celebrate those traditions that connect you and your family through the centuries. Genealogy is not just finding a name and the record proof. It is about connecting, belonging, learning both heroic and cautionary tales, and giving those to future generations. Genealogy is a bridge to relationships using the art of storytelling. The facts you discover along the way prove the stories to preserve the memories, actions and experiences of those who made it possible for you and your children to exist today. 

If you or your family are feeling disconnected, or maybe need a deeper bond, learning and sharing your family stories can help reconnect and engage all ages. 

Fully lit Advent candles set in an antique bronze Advent candelabra passed down from my husband’s father. Combining both family traditions for our children and grandchildren today. 

TIP: As you prepare your festivities, think about each meal, activity, or even specific decorations. Why do you eat those foods? Why do you do certain activities (like lighting Advent or Menorah candles)? Who taught you the recipe, or gave you the ornament? What stories did your parents and grandparents tell you that you can pass on? Is there a story in how those traditions have evolved like our oranges?

As you intentionally think through your holiday actions and memories, tell those traditions to your family around the table or the tree, and invite others to tell theirs. Your family and you will have a season of significance, belonging, and joy. 

We have quite a variety of courses to help you connect to ancestral stories at If you need help choosing, you can contact me at

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays,
Angie Breidenbach, PLCGS
Executive Director
International Institute of Genealogical Studies

Angie is a professional author, genealogist, and grandmother of 10, who shares traditions of Advent, storytelling, and oranges with her family. Her personal website can be found at, and you can follow her on social media at @AngBreidenbach.

The International Institute of Genealogical Studies offers quality online education with over 240 courses. Our wide range of courses cover specific countries, enhance methodology research, build skills to maximize your research time, and all count toward the certification you choose. 

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