Truman Capote’s short story, “A Christmas Memory,” meditates on the role of memory around the holidays.
Truman Capote today is most remembered for his horrifying true-crime novel In Cold Blood and tale of modern rootlessness in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (unlike the movie, Capote’s novella does not end happily).
So it may be a surprise to many to learn that Capote wrote three holiday stories, A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor. The stories are autobiographical, inspired by his childhood among mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, where he had been sent as a toddler after his parents’ divorce.
A Christmas Memory, the best of these three, is luminous with the friendship between the then-seven-year-old narrator and his elderly, intellectually disabled, cousin:
We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.
On one level, there is very little to the story: Buddy and his cousin make 31 fruitcakes to give to friends; they chop down and decorate a Christmas tree; they exchange homemade gifts on Christmas morning. The narrator recalls these events as happening “more than twenty years ago.”
It seems at first that these simple activities of a single Christmas season are the “Christmas memory” of the story’s title. But remembrances across the years unsettle the temporal frame of the story. Seven-year-old Buddy, for instance, makes frequent reference to his Christmases past, going back to the year he was four years old. The holiday is special for reprising the rhythms of previous Christmases. His cousin likewise recollects the Christmases of her childhood.
Buddy-as-narrator amplifies his description of his seven-year-old self and his cousin with commentary from his adult perspective, reminding us that the narrated events are remote in time, place, and sensibility from his present. He recalls Christmas seasons of his adolescence—indeed, the story ends on a “particular December morning” neither that of the seven-year-old Buddy nor the man twenty-some years removed from that boy. The constant unsettling of temporal frame of the story elevates memory itself as one the most important themes of the story.
Another important theme of A Christmas Memory is the importance of gift-giving as an aspect of friendship. Buddy and his cousin exchange gifts with their “truest friends,” people who have shown them kindness and given their own gifts—such as Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus who daily exchanges waves with them. Or the prosperous California couple Mr. & Mrs. Winston, who took the only photograph of Buddy and his cousin. With few exceptions, the only people named in the story are these true friends who are honored with a gift of fruitcake. Others—such as the “skin-flint” relatives in the household on whom Buddy and his cousin are dependent—remain nameless.
In one instance, the giving of a gift establishes a friendship. Buddy and his cousin make their way with trepidation to the café of Mr. Haha Jones to purchase contraband whiskey for their fruitcakes. The outlaw Mr. Haha Jones goes from being a fearsome figure to a friend when he refuses payment for his whiskey:
We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, jangling the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”
“Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”
Even though the gifts may be modest—a friendly wave, a photo, or two dollars-worth of whiskey—a generous spirit is essential to being a true friend. As Buddy’s cousin observes, there are “never two of anything”—never two people, nor two friendships, that are alike. Christmas is occasion to affirm present friendships and to recollect those now departed whom we have befriended and loved.
As different as Truman Capote was from Charles Dickens—the author whom we most associate with Christmas—there are commonalities among their Christmas writings. It is easy to picture Buddy—an unloved, resented burden to his relatives (his beloved cousin aside) in a poor household—as a character in a Dickens’ tale.
Both Capote and Dickens elevate memory of friends as important to Christmas. As Dickens writes in his essay “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older,” the Christmas remembrance of those friends now dead fosters “the broad beneficence and goodness that too many men have tried to tear to narrow shreds.” Memory becomes a moral force in sustaining the habits of friendliness, conviviality, and public-spiritedness.
A Christmas Memory first appeared in Mademoiselle magazine in 1958. It has twice been made into a television film: most recently in a 1997 Hallmark version but more faithfully in a 1966 ABC Stage 67 version with Geraldine Page in the role of the best friend, a performance that garnered her an Emmy, and with Capote himself narrating the movie (a contemporary reviewer dryly observed, “the art of interpretive reading cannot be listed as one of his accomplishments”).
A Christmas Memory, in both its original short story form or the 1966 television version, are well worth an hour of your time this Christmastide season, as you remember your Christmases past and strive to live generously with your loved ones.