Whether you think it's naughty or nice, many family history researchers use holiday communiqués to gather information for their family trees. Determining how to make this request politely requires both focus and brevity.
"I always think it's best to ask as a direct a question as you can," says Sara Skotzke, a professional genealogist based in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, who has included family history questions on past holiday notes. "You're more likely to get a response." Try asking for something specific that can be verified, she said, such as where a person was born, died or was buried.
Sending a genealogy-themed card such as the "Christmas Wish List" ones for sale here ($5.50 for a set of 12) is a way to humorously request the maiden name of Great-Aunt Anna.
Holiday communiqués are also a good platform for soliciting photos from your relatives. When Skotzke asks for pictures of an ancestor, she explains that she will mail the photo back to its owner as well as e-mail a digital copy. "I'll give them incentive to trust me. I will send them a CD of all of the pictures I have of the family—something they get on the other end for doing something nice."
You also could try sharing information about your own family history in the form of a family newsletter to spark dialogue with distant relatives. If you're unsure where to start, word processing programs such as Microsoft Word usually include newsletter templates that you can fill in and print out or e-mail to your family.
As excited as you may be to make headway on your family tree, don't blindside relatives with questions, cautions Doug Collier, a professional genealogist based in Nashville, Tenn. When he writes to say that he's researching the family line, he asks if he can call. "I've always found straight-up verbal conversations, to an extent, to be most-effective," he says, especially when requesting information from older relatives. "Older people have a wealth of knowledge. Every bit of information, regardless of how trivial it may appear, can and does have meaning."