A Holiday Photo Essay From “Save Family Photos” Curator Rachel LaCour Niesen
EDITOR'S NOTE: In September 2013, Rachel LaCour Niesen lost her grandfather, Billy. She did what any Southerner would do: She dug into the family photos. In her grandmother's jewelry box, she found a photo she had never seen of her Granddaddy Billy, a young Virginia man, posed in his Navy uniform in California. She scanned it, posted it in social media, and found herself overcome by the stories that came back from the rest of her family. The power of those stories gave her an idea: She launched a website, savefamilyphotos.com, and began collecting family snapshots from the days when photos were captured only on film. She collected from families all over the world. Her project became so popular that about 18 months later, in 2015, The New Yorker asked Rachel to take over its Instagram account for Mother's Day.
As Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Festivus (for the Rest of Us) approach, we asked Niesen to dive into her growing collection and share snapshots of people at holiday time and a few of the stories that go with them. We didn't even ask her to limit her choices to Southerners. Why? Because folks is folks, and it's time for all of us to get in the spirit. — Chuck Reece
Here we are as in golden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years we all will be together,
If the fates allow...
– "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," 1944
Gather near. It’s easier said than done, especially during the holiday season.
With to-do lists looming – meal planning, card mailing, gift ordering – gathering gets overlooked. Sure, we gather together. But it often feels more like an avalanche of activities than a slow, maybe even snowy morning spent, lingering over coffee.
Simply put, giving and going get in the way of gathering and resting.
Maybe what we all need is more gathering, more resting. Maybe memories really are the only gifts that matter. After all, nostalgia is a balm; it heals heavy hearts.
The fact that one young couple, trapped in their van during a snowstorm on Christmas Day, took the time to set up a camera and capture the moment is a testament to the power of memory. The joy it brings them to share those stories with their children and grandchildren, 50 years later, is unparalleled.
So this holiday season, slow down. Gather near. Let your heart be light. Make memories.
Shared by Victoria Panter-Pittman
Nashville, Tennessee, circa 1955
"My parents posing with some of their Christmas gifts in my Granny's home in Nashville. This was four years before I arrived on the scene. My mother and Daddy had been married for 9 years here, and Daddy always loved to spoil his sweetheart."
Shared by Shawn Carson
Mom and Dad, Christmas Day, Lucerne, Switzerland, circa 1969.
"My parents travelled across Europe in the 1960s, living out of their VW van. Their stories are unbelievable. Some of the best ones involved the holidays. They had been traveling across Switzerland and got caught in a snowstorm. According to Mom, that wasn't unusual, and often, people would allow them to park on their farms or in their fields. Sometimes they were even invited inside for a meal. On this Christmas Eve, they were not so lucky.
"The story goes that they were able to pull off the side of the road and wait out the weather. That night got cold, really cold. They fired up a kerosene heater that was kept inside the van (very safe, I'm sure) and finally fell asleep. On Christmas morning, they awoke to silence. Dad recalls hearing nothing and thinking it odd as most of the countryside was bustling with locals on most early days going about their chores. They quickly realized the reason for their silence. The VW was buried. The snowstorm had completely covered their vehicle. Doors sealed shut, windows covered, with only the pop-up sticking out above the snowfall. Their overnight turned into several days, and Christmas morning was one that they will always remember. Stuck inside their VW van in the Swiss countryside, simply waiting for the snow to melt. It turns out that snow is excellent insulation, and only the heat from the stove they used to cook inside the vehicle provided lasting warmth.
"Presents were wrapped, mom gathered all of the holiday finds she had acquired over the years at marketplaces in which they had visited and decorated the inside of their vehicle. They were always picking folk art from every place they visited. Looking closely, you can see the burlap angels Mom found at a Christmas Market in Germany, the brass candle Christmas tree from Denmark, and an Austrian Christmas-candle carousel in which the angels actually turned around the star, from the heat of the candles. To their left hangs what appears to be a seemingly nondescript wicker wreath. In reality, it is a stunning example of an original, handmade Nordic Christmas wheel. The Scandinavians were famous for their natural materials and real-life scenery that has become synonymous with Christmas decorations today. They were even credited with the red and white Christmas theme. I love it that mom and dad had one just hanging inside their van."
Shared by Shawn Carson
Mom and Dad in Mons, Belgium, circa 1968
"I'm not sure what I like best about this photo; from the actual popcorn mom used to pop and thread with a needle by hand to string around the tree, the real candy canes hung on the branches or the gingerbread cookies she baked, then tied up around them. The irony is that the tree is fake. They brought it all the way back from Europe and we were still putting it together each Christmas when I was in high school. The shag carpet, Dad's shirt, the deerskin moccasins, sitting on the floor, or the fact that it was only the two of them, meaning they actually set a timer, tripod and planned the picture! Classic. What I remember most, though, is that guitar. A 1960s nylon-stringed Martin classical guitar that dad happened upon when he was in college. He taught me to play it as soon as I was big enough to hold down the strings. The first song I learned was 'Puff the Magic Dragon,' followed by an entire album of Jim Croce tunes, and finally 'Your Song' by Elton John. So cool to see Dad probably playing exactly one of those songs for mom that Christmas, even before we were born."
Shared by Mario Joyce Belyusar
Meeting Santa, circa 1950.
"This is my Grandma Vanora Nickens Joyce looking admiringly into the eyes of Santa. This was taken about 1950, making her 5 years old. Her mother, Amaryllis, worked at Lazarus Department store in downtown Columbus, Ohio, being one of the first black women to be employed there. This photo was taken there. The look on my grandma’s face truly embodies the Christmas spirit. I love it!"
Shared by Barbara Griffin
Huntsville, Alabama, circa 1977
"The obligatory Griffin kids family Christmas group shot depicting (top row, l to r) Barbara, Karen, and Elizabeth, (bottom row, l to r) Michael and Bill."
Shared by Cindy Dillingham
My second Christmas.
"Here I am, just 15 months old and tearing into a Christmas gift. I am the first child, and the first grandchild. At the time, we were living in Tucson, Arizona, and my dad was finishing up his master's degree in classical music at the University of Arizona. We lived in a small bungalow, as my parents didn’t have very much money. My grandparents (my mom’s parents) had sent us some presents, and I was tearing into the gift they had sent me, which ended up being a 35-inch walking doll that utterly terrified me when my parents pulled her out of the box, wound her up, and she started walking toward me! (Think Frankenstein — arms outstretched and legs straight with every step she took! Not to mention she was twice my size.) I would, over time, come to accept her and play with her. I did find a commercial on YouTube and discover that at the time, the doll sold for $29.95! Now, the doll is a collector's item and goes for triple that."
Shared by Debbie Smartt
Jimmy and Jerry, Nashville, Tennessee, Christmas Eve, 1961
"My uncles, Jimmy and Jerry Pate, Christmas Eve, 1961, in Nashville. Christmas at the Pate house was always special. My grandparents had a rainbow, color-wheel light that pointed at this white tree. It was a beautiful sight. I am thankful for the photo and sweet Christmas memories."
Shared by Karen England
First photo: "Christmas morning joy. I’m singing 'She Sailed Away' and directing like a maestro. My mother taught me, and I can and still sing this classic tune. And I always, always direct when I’m singing."
Second photo: "Childhood Christmas wonder with two favorite presents — a Betsy Wetsy doll and an adorable stuffed kitten. Fifty-five years later, I still have the stuffed kitten, but the Betsy Wetsy doll disappeared over the years."
Shared by Melissa Montalvo
Santa's Village near Lake Arrowhead, California, in 1965
"This is a photo of my Grandma Virginia Garcia with my mom, who was 3 years old at the time. They're with my Uncle Tommy, who was just 1 year old at the time. My grandma recalls that little Tommy was screaming and crying. 'He was the boy that hated Santa,' she remembers. She had to force him into this photo. I love my grandma's beehive hairdo, booties, and coat. To this day, she has great style, at 82 years old."
Shared by Van Hayes
Christmas morning in Shreveport, Louisiana, 1955.
"I am 3 and my brother Billy is 7. I loved Christmas as a kid; trying to sleep all night was impossible. I don't really remember asking for specific things, so it all was a surprise. This year, we got new cowboy outfits and a tricycle for me, a new bike for him. Looking at this photo made me realize I still have that holster, but when I checked I was wrong: I have a Roy Rogers holster still, but not that one. My early Christmas presents were always guns, Army men and Western memorabilia. I still love the West but have never owned a gun or been in the military. I also realized I don't have a single photo of the tree or Christmas morning, just proudly posing outside with the loot. We are posing beside the first in a long line of Fords my dad bought."
Shared by Kay Little
The Kids' Table, circa 1956
"My sister and I (Kay and Nancy Evans) with our best friends, Jan and Gary Weaver, having holiday supper fun at the kids' table at the Evans home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, circa 1956. (I recently found my friend Jan Weaver on Facebook, and we have communicated several times since then).
Shared by John Dolan
Christmas morning, circa 1965, Bethesda, Maryland
"As the youngest of six kids, Christmas was always a blur. In this Christmas morning scene, I am the the pouting 5-year-old in stripes. My brother seems pretty pleased with the game of Booby-Trap he got from Santa. I don’t seem to notice that behind me is a Flexible Flyer and, if you look closely, a box of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots — both toys we would love for years. (Note: The month imprinted on the edge of the print is April 1966. Clearly, my parents were in no rush to get the one roll of film from the holidays developed.)"
Christmas morning, circa 1968, Bethesda, Maryland
'"T-Rex and me, together forever. That morning when your presents exceed your dreams and you call your friends and tell them what you got and your smile is a mile wide. Followed shortly by the life lesson that nothing lasts forever: Rex snapped a paw by dinner. Football and styrofoam dinosaurs, not such a great combo after all. (Again, film developed four months later, in April 1969.)"
Shared by Melissa Montalvo
Christmas Eve, 1979
Here is my mom, Theresa (left), with her grandmother, Arsie Trujillo, and her niece (my cousin), Regina Martinez (front). In this picture, the family was having breakfast on Christmas Eve in 1979 at my grandparents' home in Hacienda Heights, California. To this day, we love to celebrate Christmas at this house, where we've created so many family memories over the years.
Header photo was shared by Laura Lakeway: "My brother on Santa's lap, circa 1961. Even the lollipops couldn't stop him from crying. So many families have photographs just like this one, and they're always fun to look at. What's interesting is that the black-and-white version of this photo has always been in our family album, so I'm guessing it was the official photo purchased during the holidays. But I prefer seeing the color of the 35mm transparency, it is much more festive. I bet the black-and-white prints were cheaper than color prints. It's nice we have both!"