Genealogy Blog

The Many Faces of Santa Claus

23 Dec 2013

Perhaps one of the most iconic images of Christmas in America is Santa Claus. A round, cherubic man with a long white beard and a hearty laugh. Accompanied by his six (or sometimes seven) reindeer, he travels the world delivering presents to good little girls and boys. But such was not always the case.

The Separatists of Plymouth Colony and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony abhorred Christmas. They viewed it as a vestige of the Anglican Church they were trying to leave behind or change. This is typical of non-conformist churches in Britain, such as the Baptists, Congregationalists, Prebyterians, and Quakers. Anglicans and Lutherans, however, followed practices similar to the Catholic church. One of the major complaints of the Puritans and Separatists was that Christmas was too papist.

This attitude prevailed throughout the northeast until the nineteenth century, but in the south it was different. Unlike the northeast, the Anglican church was predominant. Holiday celebrations were festive events with decorations in homes and churches. The season was filled with music, singing, and dancing. Many of the songs would be unrecognizable today. But the carol Joy to the World, by Englishman Isaac Watts dates back to 1719 and was often sung.

By the nineteenth century we start to see a number of traditions from different parts of the world come together into the image of Santa Claus that we see today. Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop whose passion was caring for and giving gifts to the poor. By the Middle Ages, children were given presents on his feast day, December 5.

The Christkindl was promulgated by Martin Luther as a replacement for St. Nicholas. In many Germanic countries of Europe the Christkindl represented the Christ child, bringing presents to children each December 24. This practice was brought to America by German immigrants, but the English speakers heard this pronounced differently, and by the nineteenth century we have Kris Kringle appearing.

In England, Father Christmas dates back to the days of Henry VIII. A large man in green and scarlet-red fur-lined robes, he was the representation of the good cheer and festivities of Christmas. Since England no longer celebrated St. Nicholas’ feast day, the appearance of Father Christmas moved to December 25.

In France, it was Pére Noël who brought presents. Children left their shoes by the fireplace with carrots or other food for his reindeer. Pére Fouettard travels with Pére Noël, reminding him of how well-behaved a child was during the past year.

In the low countries of the Netherlands and Belgium, it is  “De Goede Sint” (the Good Saint), Sinterklaas, who represents the season. Dressed in the red and white robes of a bishop, a red mitre, and a gold crosier, the white-bearded Sinterklaas oversees the giving of presents. He is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who carries Sinterklass’ book.

It is the more well-known Clement Moore who penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823 who brought us the sleigh and flying reindeer landing on the roof, as well as the image of Santa Claus that we have today. The nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nash brought Santa Claus to life in Harper’s Weekly.

As the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, bits of each of these traditions combined to become the image we have today. Father Christmas’ hefty size and scarlet robes that became brighter red. Sinterklass’ red mitre became a pointy, fur-trimmed hat. Pére Noël’s shoes became stockings. And Clement Moore’s reinder, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder (now Donner), and Blixem (now Blitzen), still ferry him around the world.


Charles W. Howard made a lifetime career out of playing Santa Claus. Starting with his 4th-grade portrayal at the turn of the century, he became a popular portrayer of Santa in stores, parades, and other events. From 1948 to 1965 he was the official Santa Claus for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1937, he founded the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School to teach others how to best portray this beloved character. The school is still in operation today, in Midland, Michigan.

175,000+ New Databases in less than 3 Months

20 Dec 2013

It’s been almost three months since we announced our Free Forever mission. We’re excited to share that our total database count has quickly zoomed to more than 175,000 databases and we’ve got even more surprises planned for January.

New Search Slider for Mocavo Gold Members
Search Sliders enable you to customize your search results to better find the information you seek. We’ve already received wonderful feedback from many of you regarding the first two search sliders that we announced last month: Freshness and Keyword Appearance. Today we are excited to announce the third search slider called Dataset Size. With this slider, you will be able to sort your results depending on the size of the database. If you would prefer to search for your ancestors in smaller databases, such as the Orange County, Texas Birth Index, slide the bar to the left. If you would rather search for your ancestor in bigger databases such as the Social Security Death Index, slide the bar to the right. Use all three of the search sliders to customize your search results to discover your ancestors even faster with less effort.


Many of you have signed up for Mocavo Gold in support of our cause, and enjoy searching 175,000 databases at the same time. As always, Mocavo Basic users can search these databases individually for free. Mocavo Gold offers you automated searching, the ability to run global searches across all of our databases, and a number of other great features.

Interested in giving Mocavo Gold a test run?

Try Mocavo Gold for free for 7 days.

This is a special time of the year when we often get to spend more time with family and loved ones. From the Mocavo family to yours, we wish you Happy Holidays!

Cliff Shaw

News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, December 20, 2013

20 Dec 2013

This week we have some intriguing blog posts for genealogists from the internet. From the Event to DNA to paper sons and daughters,  this recent crop of stories covers a wide variety of topics. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

First up is a post by English blogger Tony Proctor. He provides a very interesting discussion of the research process. He asserts that we would benefit from event-based thinking, as many events involve multiple individuals, some of whom may or may not be critical to the event in and of itself. I found it a fascinating conversation. You can read more in Eventful Genealogy.

The Irish Times recently ran a story about recent happenings in Irish genealogy written by the noted genealogist John Grenham. He updates us on what’s happening at the Irish Genealogical Research Society, RootsIreland, a major new National Archives of Ireland venture, and This last is the most exciting, as they will soon be launching a new version of the indexes to vital records in Ireland. Read more in What’s On the Horizon?

Legal Genealogist Judy Russell brings us another DNA discussion. This time she Talks about some new features available from Family Tree DNA and 23andMe. 23andMe has adjusted their calculations for Ancestry Composition, which may change some of your percentages. And Family Tree DNA has released the Matrix: a new tool for comparing results. Read more in Updated DNA Tools.

Diane Webb wrote an interesting piece this week in the Newnan, Georgia, Times-Herald. She has been working on some cemeteries with the Coweta County Genealogical Society. One is a pauper cemetery where they are trying to identify burials. The other is a cemetery with some destroyed markers trying to identify family members to approve erecting new ones. She also points out the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. Read more in Genealogy: Paupers’ Cemetery Being Researched.

Chinese Paper Sons

The Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 was repealed 70 years ago this week. But for sixty years, Chinese laborers were barred from entering the country. Many Chinese families are paper sons and daughters. These were immigrants with falsified documents declaring them to be related to Chinese-Americans already here, thus being allowed to enter the country as an exception to the ban. The result is thousands of families with made-up surnames. Find out more from National Public Radio in Chinese-American Descendants Uncover Forged Family Histories.

Help us make Mocavo better and you could win a $100 Amazon shopping spree

19 Dec 2013

At Mocavo we are working hard to create a genealogy resource that is helpful and relevant to you. Please help us make Mocavo better by taking the time to answer our short survey. Today we will be asking you questions about pricing and transcription tools.

As a token of our appreciation, once you complete this survey, you will be entered into our sweepstakes for the chance to win a $100 Amazon shopping spree! Winners will be contacted through email by December 30.


Thank you for your feedback,
-The Mocavo Team

Size Matters: Questioning Everything

18 Dec 2013

Not everything is as it appears. As genealogists, we know this. We question our sources and do the research. We look for conflicting evidence. And at the end, we balance the evidence and reach our conclusions. Or do we?

Sometimes we make assumptions based on what we think we know. These are most often subconscious. They are based on things we have “known” for years; sometimes all of our lives. But how often do we step back and actually questions these things that we “know?”

I remember a scene from an episode of the West Wing a dozen years ago that illustrates this point very well.  We all remember in our geography classes learning about the Mercator projection map of the world. Developed by a Flemish geographer in 1569, this map is wonderful for navigation. It turns latitude and longitude into flat square lines. This kind of map is extremely useful for navigation, which explains its widespread use and popularity.

The problem is that flattening everything out distorts proportions and size: the larger the objects, the greater the distortion. Thus the continents appear all out of whack relative to each other. Add to that the cultural bias towards European countries at the time, and our perspectives on the world are filled with errors and problems. The Gail-Peters projection map of the world is quite different. The ratio formula is different, and maintains a more accurate view of the continents with less distortion. Compare the two:



Mercator Projection Map

Mercator Projection Map



Gail-Peters Projection Map

Gail-Peters Projection Map


While cartographers have always been aware of the deficiencies of the Mercator map, how many of you knew about this problem? We tend not to think about these things. Even the placement of north at the top of a map and south at the bottom is a totally arbitrary decision. Early maps often had north at the bottom and south at the top. If you are interested, you can watch the West Wing clip for a more detailed conversation about the maps.

The same problems occur to us in our research. If there is something we have seen continually over and over again, we may start to think of it as true and accurate without question. We may not give it the careful scrutiny that we should. Make sure you question everything as you move through your research. Assume nothing. It takes stringent discipline, but in the end your research will be on much more solid ground.

Changing the Rules by Living Longer

17 Dec 2013

Jesse and Elizabeth (Goodell) Sawyer of Belvidere, Illinois, were married 11 February 1819 in Watertown, Jefferson County, New York. He was twenty-three and she twenty-five when they were married. On 11 February 1869, their family and friends gathered with them in Belvidere, Illinois, to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. It was such a rare occasion that a pamphlet was published telling their story, and tracing their family back to the earliest New England settlers: Fiftieth Anniversary of the Marriage of Jesse Sawyer and Elizabeth Goodell (Utica, N.Y.: Roberts, Book and Job Printer, 1869).

Their son Joel read a speech that said, in part “ In behalf of your children and more remote relatives and other friends, I congratulate you on this hopeful beginning of the second half century of your married life. You have now reached a point that few of us can ever hope to reach. You have passed a period of life, that few individually and fewer still in pairs, can hope to pass. . .” (p. 8)

Now we think nothing of people living well into their 70s and 80s. Even the 90s are not hugely unusual, and centenarians are not as rare as they once were, although it is still a remarkable achievement. My paternal grandparents were married for 68 years before my grandfather, Joseph Alfred Leclerc, died in 2000. My grandmother, Marie Laura Dube, was just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday when she passed away. Today marks 102 years since she was born. At the time she was born in 1911, the average life expectancy of a woman in America was 54 years. She lived almost twice that.


Joseph Alfred and Marie Laura (Dube) Leclerc at their 60th Anniversary in 1992, with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. (From the collection of the author, used with permission)

Joseph Alfred and Marie Laura (Dube) Leclerc at their 60th Anniversary in 1992, with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. (From the collection of the author, used with permission)


As we live longer and longer, these stories are becoming more and more frequent. Marshall Kuykendall was twenty years old when he eloped with nineteen-year-old Winnie MacNab and got married before a justice of the peace on February 14, 1929. In 2012 they celebrated their 83rd wedding anniversary. Their daughter, herself, celebrated 56 years of marriage last year as well. The Catholic News Agency reported on their long marriage in 2011.

In addition to increased stories of people married for longer and longer, increased life expectancy means another change in genealogical research. We have to keep our eyes open for marriages that occur much later in life than they used to.

Ted Parsons’ wife Linda passed away in the early 1980s. One of his friends, Jean Reed, was a staunch support for him. Eventually they fell in love. They have lived together ever since, and finally married recently in New Malden, Surrey, in England. This is a fairly common story, but what makes it more interesting is that Ted and Linda were married for 50 years before she died. And Ted is now 98, while his never-before-married blushing bride Jean is 90. Their combined age is 188 years. You can read about them in the Mirror.

As amazing as that sounds, they do not hold the record for the couple with the largest combined age to marry. That distinction was awarded last year to Americans Allan Marks and Lillian Hartley of Palm Springs, California. He was 98 and she 95 when they married last year on February 29; a combined age of 193 years. You can read their story in USA Today.

Christmas Cows: Interesting Holiday Gifts for the Genealogist

14 Dec 2013

Tick-tock, tick-tock. There are only 10 more days until Christmas, and 12 more days until Kwanzaa. Many of you may be wondering what to get your genealogy family and friends for the holidays this year. Or perhaps your family wants to know what to get for you. Earlier this week we gave you some creative ideas for gift giving. Check out these five additional ideas for something different in gift giving this holiday season.

1. Gift Certificate to Powell’s Books

It is easy to go to and buy the latest publications on a topic. But sometimes one wants to find a little-known older work. While many very old works are available online, the text of books that are still protected by copyright are not easily accessible that way. Based in Portland, Oregon, Powell’s Books is a great resource for used books. I have found many treasures there both in walking through the stacks of their brick-and-mortar stores and on the website. As a plus, they sell new books as well, so a gift certificate there will go a long way.

2. Conference Registration

Education is important for genealogists. Every time you find new ancestors in a different location, you have to start from scratch, learning how to research in that area. One of the best way to learn is to attend seminars and conferences with your fellow genealogists. Giving a registration to one of these educational events is a great holiday gift. It can be to a one-day regional or state event, or one of the multi-day national conferences sponsored by the National Genealogical Society or the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

3. Pictures from Home

Travelling to ancestral homelands can be difficult to schedule and costly. One way around this is to hire a photographer near where your ancestors lived. Hire them to visit your ancestral village to take photographs of the church, town square, ancestral home, etc. The cost can be a lot less than travelling there yourself. Be certain to get references for people whom you have not worked with before.

4. Donate to a Genealogical/Historical Society

Local historical and genealogical societies never have enough money. Make a donation to one of these groups in a location that is of interest to your genealogist. Even the smallest of donations can go a long way to help them. And, since most of these organizations are non-profit, you get a tax deduction for your donation as well.


Christmas cow


5. Horses, Cows, Sheep, Lambs, or Fund a Business

I have a friend who gives gifts through Heifer International. This organization has been working for 70 years to help those in need to end hunger and poverty around the world. Pick an ancestor. If your recipient had one who was a farmer, you can purchase livestock in his/her name. Everything from a single share of a sheep, to an entire ark full of animals. Or, in honor of an ancestor who was a merchant, you could help fund a small business to empower women in need. Were there carpenters or laborers in the family’s past? Help a family get roofing materials, bricks, concrete, and other building supplies to build strong homes. Give a gift through Heifer in honor of your genealogist’s ancestors, and make a difference in the world.

Do you plan on giving any genealogy related gifts this holiday season?

14 Dec 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked if you were planning on giving a genealogy related gift this season. Most of our community members do not seem to be in the genealogy gift giving spirit. Twenty-five percent of our users do plan on making a gift for family members this holiday season. Need ideas for a homemade gift? Check out our special holiday gift giving infographic. Don’t forget to check out our bi-monthly newsletter or Facebook page to take our next poll: “How far back can you trace your family history?


News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, December 13, 2013

13 Dec 2013

Following are some news stories and blog posts for genealogists I’ve come across recently. I hope you find them interesting and informative. Topics range from 400,000 year old humans to Napoléon Bonaparte.

Last week the New York Times ran a story about DNA recovered from a 400,000-year-old thigh bone in Spain. It is causing scientists to re-evaluate previous theories of human evolution, as it was not, as expected, Neanderthal DNA. It was closely related to a much more recent species of humans, the Denisovans. Read more in Baffling 400,000-Year-Old Clue to Human Origins.

Six student at De Mountfort University in Leicester, England, have created an amazing video. The three-minute video allows viewers to fly through Tudor London, seeing what the city looked like prior to the Great Fire of 1666. They used maps of that era to create the street patterns, and signs of genuine business created from descriptions in diaries of the period. Read more and watch he video in Prize-Winning Animation Lets You Fly Through 17th-Century London.

Noted genealogist Paul Milner published a review of a great new book of interest to those with Irish ancestry. The book uses 271 high-quality images and text to discuss a century of Irish history, from the era of the Irish famine through the start of World War II. Read what Paul has to see about this brand new work in Book Review: The Irish: A Photohistory 1840­–1940 by Sean Sexton and Christine Kenealy.

Last week I talked about the story of a lost cemetery in upstate New York that had a happy conclusion. This week, however, the focus moves to Prince William County, Virginia. The Board of Supervisors and the school district have been involved in some shenanigans to push through an action to remove bodies from a local cemetery so that the land can be turned into a football field for a local high school. Read more in the Washington Post in A Family History Trampled for a Football Field.




Napoléon Bonaparte is apparently alive and well, sat least accruing to the government agency responsible for the annual census taken in France. The agency recently sent a letter addressed to:

Bonaparte, Napoléon
3 Rue Saint Charles
Ajaccio [Corsica]

This address is right next door to Napoléon’s actual birthplace, which is today a museum. Read what the current occupant of that address did with the letter in Napoleon Receives Letter From French Census Bureau.

Fate and the Genealogist

12 Dec 2013

Our family histories are filled with simple quirks of fate that can send families off in new directions. If not for a single decision, your family’s life would have been much different. And who knows, perhaps you might not even exist?

We all have our special interests in genealogy. There are those who get very excited about having royal ancestry. For me, it is an interesting side note, but not hugely of interest to me.  Although very few of us can actually prove it, most of us who are of European ancestry probably have some sort of royal ancestry. The reason for this is quite simple.

For the most part, only one individual can become king or queen. It is usually the eldest who ascends to the throne (son or daughter will vary depending on the monarchy). His or her siblings and their children become lesser royals. Lesser royals marry into the nobility. But once again, only the eldest can inherit the title. Lesser nobles become landed gentry. The younger children of the landed gentry end up marrying commoners. So within a few generations, the youngest children go from being royalty to becoming commoners. And most of us have ancestry filled with commoners, some of who trace back to those royal ancestors. Unfortunately, in most instances, this is so far back it is difficult or impossible to prove.

Sometimes, however, the trajectory changed. For example, Elizabeth II was never supposed to be the Queen of England. King George V and his wife, Mary of Teck, had five sons and a daughter. Upon George’s death, their eldest son Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David ascended to the throne as King Edward VIII.

Edward, however, was destined for a short reign. From the beginning, he did not pay attention to accepted conventions. Within months he proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson, a divorced American waiting for her second divorce. This threw the nation into a constitutional crisis. The prime ministers of the United Kingdom and many of the dominions disapproved of the monarch’s marriage to a divorced woman. The Archbishop of Canterbury also objected, based on the Church of England’s oppositions to remarriage of divorced persons whose original spouses were still living.



King Edward VIII opening Parliament in 1936, from Wikimedia Commons.


Great-grandson of the longest-reigning monarch in British history, Edward’s reign was one of the shortest. Less than a year after ascending the throne, Edward abdicated seventy-seven years ago yesterday, on 11 December 1936, “for the woman I love.” They married in 1937 and remained so until his death in 1972.

Edward’s abdication thrust his younger brother Albert unexpectedly onto the throne as King George VI. Since George VI had no sons, his eldest daughter Elizabeth ascended to the throne upon his death. Interestingly, Elizabeth’s grandfather George V also was never supposed to be king. His elder brother Albert was heir to the throne when he died of pneumonia at the age of 28. Neither father nor son were supposed to be king.

In our own family, we see similar circumstances. And eldest son dies and the second son inherits the family farm instead. One family makes the decision to leave their native land behind and emigrate to America. Another family makes the same decision, but unfortunately chooses to travel on board H.M.S. Titanic. When researching, take a moment to look at the decisions and circumstances of your ancestors’ lives. See how much things may have been different, for better or for worse, had it not been for circumstances or the decisions they made.