If they haven’t already, many a bibliophile will be lighting their fires, settling in an armchair and dusting off their copies of A Christmas Carol, the literary quintessence of the holiday season. Finally, like Michael Bublé, it can come off the shelf and into the spotlight. For some of us, however, Dickens is not our idea of making the Yuletide gay. It is my deep literary shame that I’ve never got on with Dickens, that I’m missing out on this book-related tradition. Yet there is another story just as festive. And shorter. Truman Capote’s short story, ‘A Christmas Memory’, captures a simplistic Christmastime, adults experiencing child-like wonder, and children delighting in the giving of gifts.
Somewhat autobiographical, ‘A Christmas Memory’ has a young Capote as the narrator, preparing Christmas cakes with an elderly cousin – a grandmother in all but name. The first half of the story, “a morning in late November”, follows the two friends as they forage for unharvested pecans, clandestinely purchase whiskey from Mr. Haha Jones “who never laughs”, and emptying their secret change purse to buy the cake ingredients. The second half, they make presents for each other and decorate a tree, spending hours at a kitchen table with “scissors and crayons and stacks of coloured paper”. And it’s not a true Christmas story without a hint of melancholy, Capote ending the story by reflecting on it being their last Christmas together.
A childish innocence and wonderment run through the story, winds around it like a string of Christmas lights. Each time they wander through woods, wade over creeks or spend the afternoon shelling pecans by a fire, Capote evokes a warmth that you can feel in the pit of your stomach, a happiness that has you grinning from ear-to-ear. There is nothing grand about their Christmas, the extravagance and excitement is powered only through their shared childlike gaze. It is their unadulterated imagination that turns their paper-and-foil decorated tree into a magnificent sight, ‘blazing like a Baptist’s window’; that makes homemade gifts their greatest treasure: the smallest things become the most joyful. Reading this, I can’t help but share in their unfrivolous and uncomplicated joy – no expectations or pressure. Just a pure happiness that they find despite the scolding adults and small funds.
And their poverty hardly enters their minds as a cause for unhappiness, or makes their presents any less. Yes, they both wish for more money, but only to buy better presents for each other: a bike for Capote, and a pearl-handled knife for his cousin. Instead, they make each other kites for the third year running. Can you imagine a child of today being happy with their third hand-made kite? Neither of them spends much time thinking of what they’ll receive; there is no scene of list-writing or sitting on Santa’s lap, rattling off wished for presents. The anticipation of receiving plays second-fiddle to the delight of giving. After all, that’s what the story’s core is, making and giving out their Christmas cakes. Most of the cakes are presents for people Capote and his cousin have met once, if at all, including President Roosevelt, Baptist missionaries, a knife grinder, a waving us driver, and a Californian couple. These presents aren’t given out of obligation or expectation, they are not expensive nor are they luxuries. They are simple, handmade, and given in both the truest spirit of friendship and the season. What Capote and his cousin receive in return are post cards, ‘thank-you’s on White House stationery’ that make them ‘feel connected to an eventful world beyond the kitchen’. The act of giving is both literally and figuratively far reaching. Thinking about this from a 2020 perspective, a year that has taken so much from us, finding pleasure in giving, in creating a moment of happiness for someone else, has never felt more powerful and essential.
Just as the Christmas season can be the height of happiness and unbounded excitement, so can it be tainted by melancholy – Capote makes sure to remind us of this. ‘Life separates us’ Capote beings the final paragraphs, the distance between him and his cousin growing, between being sent away to military school, summer camps, a new home – and for his cousin, ‘more and more thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed.’ So masterful is Capote’s writing that he doesn’t even need to say the words – everything you need to know, every heartstring is tugged by so simple a sentence as ‘when that happens, I know it’. Anyone who has lost someone feels what Capote projects, the near-emotional conflict between the overarching Christmas cheer and grief that sits on your heart, the one dead bulb in a string of lights. The story holds on to its festive mood, its festive youthful dreaminess; but by the end, it reads as an elegiac love letter, a memory of Christmases and loves lost.
There are no ghosts in ‘A Christmas Memory’, nor is there a ‘happy ending’ or a Muppet film adaptation. Capote’s story is not a festive inspired redemption arc, but a memory. And more importantly, it’s a tradition. The story is just one instance of a wintery tradition, one memory of his beloved friend and cousin. It has all the makings of a perfect Christmas tale from presents to cake, to family politics and hints of grief. Like Dickens purists and A Christmas Carol, reading it has become an annual tradition for me, never losing any of its appeal, charm or potency as an exceptional piece of literature. The cheer always stands out, the baking of cakes and the wandering through woods makes me truly gleeful; then the loss and mourning hits, that bittersweet memory of previous Christmases with those who have passed. Loss, child-like freedom and boredom and baking – if there was ever a Christmas story for 2020, it would be this.
You can read ‘A Christmas Memory’ here.
Words by James Reynolds
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