“A Christmas Memory” is an evocation of an idealized early childhood, a memory clouded by the innocence of a seven-year-old. The narrator, who is now an adult, remembers making fruitcakes with his elderly cousin, an annual event which marked the coming of Christmas.
Memory and Reminiscence
From the beginning of the story, the narrator’s memory is linked to the act of storytelling and creativity.’ ‘Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.” Though the narrator sets the scene, he depends on the reader’s own experiences to bring it into focus so he can tell the story. This technique plays upon the questionable nature of memory, in which personal experience is combined with images from other stories, books, and pictures to form a mind’s-eye view. Thus, the veracity, or truthfulness, of memory is cast into doubt.
The story also illustrates the power of specific objects to evoke a particular memory. Just as in the beginning of the story ‘ ‘a great black stove” is the object around which the remembered kitchen is constructed, so at the end does the image of kites help the narrator to remember his cousin and their friendship. Likewise, the “hateful heap of bitterodored pennies” which comprises the bulk of the two friends’ fortune recalls “the carnage of August” when they were paid one penny for every twenty-five flies they killed. This image exemplifies the nature of memory in which one sense (in this case the smell of the pennies) leads to the remembrance of another sensory experience (the sight of the dead flies).
Another trait of personal reminiscence is the listing of objects, such as what the narrator eats for dinner (“cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam”), the fruitcake ingredients (“Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple,” etc.) and the Christmas tree decoration (“a shoe box of ermine tails .. ., coils of frazzled tinsel … , one silver star,” etc.). These lists not only aid the reader in conjuring an image of the scene being described, they also establish the authority of the narrator, as though he were saying, “I can prove that I was there because this is what I saw.”
Memory also acts as a retreat from reality, as evidenced by the narrator’s elderly friend calling him Buddy ‘ ‘in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend” and who died. Her later inability to distinguish him from ‘ ‘the other Buddy” signals the increasing confusion of her mind and also her death, when she herself becomes a memory of the narrator.
Friendship among social outcasts is a common theme in this story by Truman Capote’s, and in “A Christmas Memory” the friendship between Buddy and his friend provide strength for the narrator. Buddy and his friend are outsiders within their household; the other members of the family “have power over [them], and frequently make [them] cry,” but on the whole they “are not too much aware of them” because the friendship is their refuge. This friendship is made possible because even though his cousin is “sixty-something,” she is “still a child” and shares his innocent view of the world. The strength of their friendship is further underscored by the statement that the narrator’s real name is not Buddy; it is the name his friend has given him, and it is the only name the reader learns. From his cousin, Buddy learns how the beauty of nature signifies God’s presence and that money is not the only measure of value. When the ‘ ‘rich mill owner’s lazy wife” tries to buy their Christmas tree, his friend exclaims “We wouldn’t take a dollar,” underscoring the intrinsic value of nature by stating:’ ‘There’s never two of anything.” The friendship helps the narrator survive once he is separated from her, though he recognizes the irreversible loss of his childhood innocence:’ ‘Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.” Even twenty years later, he likens their friendship to a ‘ ‘lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”
Coming of Age
“A Christmas Memory” shows how children pass into adulthood not only by growing older, but also by learning the ways of the world. Two conflicting worldviews confront Buddy in the story, and it is his ability to synthesize the two that leads to his increased wisdom. His friend’s childlike qualities exemplify her refusal to leave childhood and assume an adult role. The narrator states: “She is still a child.” Though seven-year-old Buddy respects this quality, it is the basis for her ostracism from the rest of the family, who treat her as a subordinate. Her inability or refusal to properly distinguish between what is socially acceptable behavior and what is not is demonstrated in her allowing Buddy to become drunk on the leftover whiskey. She does understand that society might have good reason for refusing to allow children to drink alcohol. Told in flashback, the narrator relates the bittersweet nature of coming of age. Once removed from his best friend and sent to military school, he states that’ ‘Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.” He recognizes the symbolic innocence of his younger days when he “[expects] to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Truman Capote, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.