Harvesting the family tree for awesome gifts

Andrew Bret Wallis | Stockbyte | Getty Images

Celebrating family is a cornerstone of the holiday season. It's not a bad gift theme, either, for those tough-to-buy-for relatives.

In a recent Simon Property Group survey of favorite people to buy for, moms got just 9 percent of the vote. That ranked them a distant fourth behind kids (40 percent), spouses (24 percent) and extended family/friends (13 percent). Dad came in dead last with 2 percent of the vote—less than even the 3 percent who picked "someone else." Ouch.

Gifts that celebrate or explore family history are "a step beyond" the typical personalized gifts involving family photos or monograms, said Trae Bodge, senior lifestyle editor for RetailMeNot.com.

"You can surprise them, delight them and give them a door into part of their past they may not know about," she said. Some are big-ticket enough that adult siblings can pitch in for a joint gifting.

Of course, a professional family tree or ancestral DNA analysis take months, and require participation on the part of the recipient. Your gift is the commission, not the final product. With that in mind, think about a clever teaser for that IOU, said Bodge. "I would print up a family photo and make a card, or get one of the kids to draw a family tree," she said. "Put a 'more to come' message inside."

—By Kelli B. Grant, CNBC.com
Posted 13 Dec. 2014

Genetic ancestry tests
Ancestry.com

Mom's family hails from Germany and Dad's, Scotland—right? DNA tests offer a breakdown of where your ancestors hail from, using a saliva sample. Ancestry.com's AncestryDNA kit ($99; on sale for $89 through Dec. 21) looks at more than 700,000 markers, parsing results into 26 different regions.

Testing can also help users flesh out their family tree, with the ability to search networks of other test-takers for those who share their DNA. Ancestry.com has also made more than 20 million matches of fourth cousins or closer, said Stephen Baloglu, director of product marketing.

Other options on offer include 23andMe.com ($99; price break of 20 percent when purchasing two or more tests).

DNA portrait
DNA11

Consider a different twist on that family portrait hanging in the living room. DNA11.com uses analysis from your genes to create arty canvases. Pricing starts at $199 for a canvas featuring one person's genome; commissions can be stretched to include up to four people's DNA.

Not your style? For $175 and up, the company generates art from a fingerprint or lip print.

Genealogy research
Vetta | Getty Images

Tracing your roots requires untangling records pertaining to birth, death, immigration, military service and more. There are plenty of free resources out there for genealogy buffs who know where to look, but advanced sleuthing can warrant professional help.

The National Archives maintains a list of independent researchers for hire, who specializing in topics such as the Cold War or diplomatic records. Ancestry.com also offers packages with professional genealogists, with a starting price of $1,900 for 20-25 hours of work.

Family tree
Virginia Rufener-Angus

Maybe it's a detailed reminder of just how you're related to the great-great- and twice-removed-medley that shows up at family reunions. Or a way to showcase that yes, the family can trace its lineage back to Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Whatever the motive, artists' takes on family trees can serve as a creative visual trace for one family member's ancestry or descendants.

On Etsy, artist Virginia Rufener-Angus incorporates old family photos (as pictured), if you have them, with prices starting at $100.

Other options: Etsy artist JoAnn Kenny has pen, ink and watercolor trees starting at $300; an extensive painted tree with miniature portraits from Gerhard and Bambi Mounet Lipp runs $975.

Personal history documentaries
David Anderson

Hearing Grandpa tell his stories of growing up in the Great Depression? Priceless. Professional documentaries capture memories for future generations through interviews, photographs and memorabilia.

"The whole concept is to honor them, and say, your life is worth documenting," said Jamie Yuenger, owner of StoryKeep.org (pictured, conducting an interview). There's an advantage to having someone outside the family do the interviews: "I can get away with asking questions that family members can't or don't ask, said Life Stories Alive founder Mike O'Krent. "The most common thing I hear afterward is, 'I've known this person all my life, and I've never heard that story.'"

Documentaries can have the longest gift turnaround from contract to having the final DVDs in hand, as several months are needed for research, on-camera interviews and editing. They can also be the most expensive: Prices start at $8,000, depending on travel required and the depth of coverage a family is looking for, said Yuenger.