Holiday Story Idea Sources
Has this time of year put you in the mood to write a holiday-themed story for 2017 submissions? These websites can get you started finding historical documents and images. If you want to find documents for a particular locale, it will be helpful to use a web browser to search for universities or museums in the area, and then check whether they have “digital collections” on their websites. Here are some that I found with substantial digitized holiday material.
The New York Public Library’s collection of holiday greeting postcards covers the 1870s through the 1930s. The four largest collections are Christmas, birthday, Easter, and New Year’s cards, but Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and other holidays are also represented. A novelist who plans to have a character send a holiday greeting would do well to look at the examples on this website. Since the NYPL also digitized the handwritten messages on the backs of the postcards, those could be browsed for story ideas.
This site has a collection called “Menus: The Art of Dining”, from their Bohn-Bettoni Collection. Henry J. Bohn, a restaurant trade magazine publisher, collected menus from American and Canadian restaurants, and purchased the Bettoni collection of European menus from the 19th century. The above link goes to the section of the collection that groups holiday menus together, mainly Thanksgiving and Christmas. If your character is dining in the Grand Hotel in Leadville, Colorado at Christmas in 1879, or the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee in 1882, you can find the menus for those meals on this website and make your scene historically accurate.
Are you working on a war story with a character in a prison camp? This site offers some interesting Christmas images from U.S. prisoners of war held in German camps. “Kriegies” was slang for the German Kriegsgefangener (prisoners of war). The documents offered on this page don’t have a lot of explanatory material, but they seem to be hand-drawn Christmas cards by prisoners, handwritten menus of holiday dinners, poems, announcements of entertainments, etc. Contact information for museum staff is provided on the website, if you need to find out more about the documents.
The Morgan Library & Museum in New York offers digitized images of the autograph manuscript of the seminal Christmas story, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, showing Dickens’ additions and corrections. The digitized version was created from the actual copy the author sent to the printer in December 1843.
Searching Wayne State University’s digital collections on “Christmas” brings up over 570 images and documents of Christmas in the Detroit, Michigan area. The site allows you to narrow results by date via the column on the left-hand side of the page, and also narrow by publisher, subject, or creator. Some of the documents I retrieved: a photo of Boy Scouts linking arms to help hold back Christmas shoppers to keep them safe from traffic, holiday parades, and scenes of shoppers in downtown stores. Someone writing about holiday activities in the mid-20th century, when people went to the city center to shop rather than suburban malls, will find inspiration here.
This Carolina Christmas site is “a collection of images, documents, and materials from the North Carolina States Archives that pertain to the Holiday season.” Images and documents from World Wars I and II, the American Civil War, and Red Cross posters are included, as well as samples of Christmas cards, photographs of children during the holiday, parades, and examples of decorations. A novelist wanting to describe a store window decorated for Christmas in the 1950s, or someone writing about the North Carolina Moravians’ holiday would find material on this site.
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West aims “to inspire, educate, and engage global audiences through an authentic experience with the American West.” If you go to the above link, and search on “Christmas,” you will retrieve over 150 images and documents from the Center’s collection of Christmas memorabilia. Included are Christmas cards from Buffalo Bill himself, photos of ranch-style decorations, Christmas lights at oil refineries, and advertisements from gun magazines promoting a new rifle as a Christmas present. Authors looking for holiday story ideas set in the West may find relevant holiday material in the personal letters from this collection.
The Archives Canada site is “the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians and spans the entire history of our country.” If you search on “Christmas” on the above site, you’ll retrieve over 1000 images from artifacts in the Archives’ collection. You can qualify the search by checking the “photographs,” “art,” or other boxes.
A search for “Christmas” on the University of British Columbia site retrieves over 20,000 documents and images from the University’s collection, including photos from Christmas parties, a painting of trappers arriving at a Hudson’s Bay post for the holidays, a letter written by Florence Nightingale on Christmas Day in 1888, and historical Christmas cards.
This collection documents the early Jewish settlers of Washington State, with photographs, diaries, correspondence, and oral histories. If you do a search on “Hanukkah” or “Chanukah,” you will retrieve photos of Hanukkah celebrations from the mid-20th century.
This site provides access to the last 125 years of the archives of the Cleveland Jewish News (and its predecessors). Go to the search box and enter “Hannukah” or “Chanukah” (search on each to get maximum results), and you will retrieve articles and advertisements on the holiday. The archival search excludes the most recent 90 days of the newspaper.
This section of the State Library of New South Wales website searches the manuscripts and pictures file of their collection. Type “Christmas” in the box and be sure to click the button “records with images.” You’ll then retrieve over 2000 images related to Christmas in New South Wales, such as photos of people at the beach on Boxing Day, old Christmas cards, examples of holiday decorations, and photos of Christmas celebrations. NOTE: at the time of this writing, the website offered a preview of their forthcoming website, but no information is given about when the official changeover to the new page will take place.
The UK’s Imperial War Museums’ website’s section on “collections” allows you to search on “Christmas”, which will retrieve over 5800 documents and images related to the holiday during wartime in Britain and the Commonwealth countries. You’ll see photos of World War II sailors making toys from scrap wood, scenes of Christmas celebrations on shipboard, photos of Christmas dinner in the World War I trenches, and Christmas greetings made by prisoners of war.
This is a page from a 2012 article by the BBC on the discovery of very early recordings made in 1904 by the Wall Family of north London. They are believed to be the earliest known audio recordings of a family Christmas celebration. Several of the recordings, children singing, and a family member offering a toast, can be listened to on the above BBC page. The Wall Family collection is housed at the Museum of London, and here is the Museum’s page about the collection, which offers audio excerpts. Anyone setting a scene at a British family Christmas celebration in the early 20th century will want to experience these recordings.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.