Old-Photo Problem Solving: A Man Named “Christmas”

Old-Photo Problem Solving: A Man Named “Christmas”

Genealogists groan when they find a Smith, Brown or Taylor (don't I know it!) on their family trees. Common-name woes abound, but what about a name that triggers too many search results for a different reason: It's also a holiday. Take the surname Christmas, for instance. In searching for...

Genealogists groan when they find a Smith, Brown or Taylor (don’t I know it!) on their family trees.

Common-name woes abound, but what about a name that triggers too many search results for a different reason: It’s also a holiday. Take the surname Christmas, for instance.

In searching for holiday-themed photos, I went to the Library of Congress website and started looking for pictures featuring Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas.

That last one caused the problem. There were plenty of images relating to Dec. 25th but mixed in was a man’s portrait titled “Christmas, Joseph.” But is this Joseph?

Let’s start with the facts. According to the LOC cataloging record, the C.M. Bell studio of Washington, D.C., made this picture between February 1894 and February 1901. The studio was in business from 1873 to 1916. You can view more images by Bell on the Library of Congress website.

Along the top left edge of this photo is a negative number:

This young man in a striped silk bowtie has a sparse mustache, suggesting he might be in his late teens or early 20s. The bad areas on the right of the photo are damaged areas of the original negative.

Now here’s where the problem comes in. “Joseph Christmas” is written on the negative envelope. But that label doesn’t specify if that’s the name of the person pictured, or if this picture was taken for a client named Joseph Christmas. So is this Joseph Christmas or someone else?

City directories for Washington, D.C., for this period list one Joseph Christmas. A quick Ancestry.com search for the name in 1898 plus or minus five years turns up a few possibilities, but none are a good match to the age of the man in this image.

In the 1900 census, there is a Joseph Christmas living in Washington, D.C., and born in Germany in 1838. Could he be a relative if the man pictured?

It might take a Christmas miracle to solve this mystery, or at least a LOT more searching.

Have you encountered problems like this in researching your own surname?


Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
  • Save

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    1. Dear Maureen, I can esily see how a German name like "Christman" could be rendered as "Christmas". I have ancestors from Germany who started out as Christman who evolved into "Chrisman" Carol

    2. The man photographed above is John Albert Christmas who was born about 1879 to former slaves Marcus George Christmas and Henrietta Davis of Warren County, North Carolina. A family tree compiled by the late Reverend Thomas Weatherford (John’s grandnephew) includes a digitized copy of this photograph showing the original framing bearing the photographer’s logo and the handwritten label "Uncle Johnny Christmas."

      John Albert Christmas’s parents were my 2nd-great-granduncle and 2nd-great-grandaunt. Marcus’s brother, Erasmus Christmas, was one of my 2nd-great-grandfathers. Henrietta’s brother, Richard D. Davis, was another one of my 2nd-great-grandfathers.

      Thank you for sharing this photograph.