"A Christmas Memory" is a short story by Truman Capote. Originally published in Mademoiselle magazine in December 1956, it was reprinted in The Selected Writings of Truman Capote in 1963. It was issued in a stand-alone hardcover edition by Random House in 1966, and it has been published in many editions and anthologies since.
The largely autobiographical story, which takes place in the 1930s, describes a period in the lives of the seven-year-old narrator and an elderly woman who is his distant cousin and best friend. The evocative narrative focuses on country life, friendship, and the joy of giving during the Christmas season, and it also gently yet poignantly touches on loneliness and loss.
Now a holiday classic, "A Christmas Memory" has been broadcast, recorded, filmed, and staged multiple times, in award-winning productions.
"A Christmas Memory" is about a young boy, referred to as "Buddy," and his older cousin, who is unnamed in the story but is called Sook in later adaptations. The boy is the narrator, and his older cousin — who is eccentric and childlike — is his best friend. They live in a house with other relatives, who are authoritarian and stern, and have a dog named Queenie.
The family is very poor, but Buddy looks forward to Christmas every year nevertheless, and he and his elderly cousin save their pennies for this occasion. Every year at Christmastime, Buddy and his friend collect pecans and buy whiskey — from a scary Native American bootlegger named Haha Jones — and many other ingredients to make fruitcakes. They send the cakes to acquaintances they have met only once or twice, and to people they've never met at all, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
This year, after the two have finished the elaborate four-day production of making fruitcakes, the elderly cousin decides to celebrate by finishing off the remaining whiskey in the bottle. This leads to the two of them becoming drunk, and being severely reprimanded by angry relatives.
The next day Buddy and his friend go to a faraway grove, which the elderly cousin has proclaimed the best place, by far, to chop down Christmas trees. They manage to take back a large and beautiful tree, despite the arduous trek back home.
They spend the following days making decorations for the tree and presents for the relatives, Queenie, and each other. Buddy and the older cousin keep their gifts to each other a secret, although Buddy assumes his friend has made him a kite, as she has every year. He has made her a kite, too.
Come Christmas morning, the two of them are up at the crack of dawn, anxious to open their presents. Buddy is extremely disappointed, having received the rather dismal gifts of old hand-me-downs and a subscription to a religious magazine. His friend has gotten the somewhat better gifts of oranges and hand-knitted scarves. Queenie gets a bone.
Then they exchange their joyful presents to each other: the two kites. In a beautiful hidden meadow, they fly the kites that day in the clear winter sky, while eating the older cousin's Christmas oranges. The elderly cousin thinks of this as heaven, and says that God and heaven must be like this.
It is their last Christmas together. The following year, the boy is sent to military school. Although Buddy and his friend keep up a constant correspondence, this is unable to last because his elderly cousin suffers more and more the ravages of old age, and slips into dementia. Soon, she is unable to remember who Buddy is, and not long after, she passes away.
As Buddy says later:
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing me from an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven.
"A Christmas Memory" was adapted for television for ABC Stage 67 by Truman Capote and Eleanor Perry. The production starred Geraldine Page and Donnie Melvin, and Truman Capote was the narrator. Both the teleplay and the program's star, Geraldine Page, won Emmy Awards. The production also won the coveted Peabody Award. This production is available on video under such titles as ABC Playhouse 67: A Christmas Memory or Truman Capote’s "A Christmas Memory". This version starring Geraldine Page was also released in cinemas by Allied Artists in 1969 as part of Truman Capote’s Trilogy.
The story was also adapted for Hallmark television in 1997. This production starred Eric Lloyd as Buddy and Patty Duke as Sook. Eric Lloyd was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a TV Movie/Pilot/Mini-Series – Young Actor Age Ten or Under. This version was criticized as being inferior to the previous film.
The story has also been adapted as part of Short Story Anthology, a 16-part series available from Children’s Television International. “A Christmas Memory” comprises episodes 11 and 12 of the series.
For the live-audience Selected Shorts series, broadcast nationally on NPR stations, actor John Shea recorded "A Christmas Memory" in the late 1990s. Shea's sensitive reading was anthologized and sold on cassette, and the anthology, Selected Shorts, Vol. XII, was the winner of AudioFile Magazine's Earphones Award in 1999.
A CD of the story read by Celeste Holm is included in Knopf/Random House's 50th Anniversary 2006 printing of the book.
Truman Capote's own reading of "A Christmas Memory" was recorded in 1959 and issued on LP. An abridged version of the 1959 LP was featured on the NPR radio program This American Life in 2003. Capote was also recorded in 1976 reading the story to a live audience at the University of North Dakota Writers Conference.
In 1991, a musical stageplay adaptation by Malcolm Ruhl and Russell Vandenbroucke, Holiday Memories, was published, which combines both "A Christmas Memory" and "The Thanksgiving Visitor."
In 2010, Capote's "A Christmas Memory" was adapted into a full-length musical by Broadway veterans Larry Grossman (music) and Carol Hall (lyrics). Duane Poole, who had written the original teleplay starring Patty Duke, wrote the musical's book. A Christmas Memory received its world premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, California on December 4, 2010, starring Broadway veteran, Penny Fuller. The musical will have its Off-Broadway premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan, starring Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley as Sook. It is scheduled to run November 25, 2014 – January 4, 2015 at the Irish Rep's temporary home, the DR2 Theater in Union Square.
In 1992, Capote's "A Christmas Memory" was adapted into a one-act opera by American composer Samuel Jones. The opera was first staged by Gaitley Mathews at the Deep Ellum Opera Theatre in Dallas in December, 1992, to critical acclaim. The composer fashioned the libretto from the story and the Eleanor Perry/Truman Capote television screenplay, with their personal approval. The composer also created an orchestral suite from the opera.
Truman Capote further explored the lives of Buddy and Sook in his story "The Thanksgiving Visitor," which also was adapted for television. The 1967 television production of The Thanksgiving Visitor earned Geraldine Page a second Emmy Award. Capote's third short story about Buddy and Sook was "One Christmas," published in 1983, and televised in 1994.