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Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory (1966)

Hopefully some day–and some day soon–this Emmy-winning program will be released on DVD for American audiences.

 
Originally broadcast as a segment on the anthology series ABC Stage 67, Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory has aired on TV independently of the series–although not for some time.  I own an official black-and-white release of the program on VHS–one I bought at a library sale many years ago.  However, I’m grateful to a Christmas TV fan who shared with me a digital copy he burned from a broadcast in the 1990s.  Now with the ability to capture images, I’m happy to share with you about one of my all-time favorite Christmas TV programs.

Even though I spend a tremendous amount of my time watching television, I’m also a reader.  I have always loved books and I spent my childhood at a local library engrossed in books.  Capote’s short story A Christmas Memory, first published in 1956, is one of my favorite reads and features his one-of-a-kind voice and diction.  Not only does this Emmy-winning TV adaptation capture the short story’s complex tone but it also includes Truman Capote himself narrating the program.

Geraldine Page as Sook.  “Oh my. It’s fruitcake weather.”

The story is a reflection back thirty years into the past during the Depression (now much longer ago) when the young boy called Buddy shares a happy Christmas with his best friend Sook.  Sook is an elderly distant cousin with whom Buddy lives after his parents left him in the care of others.  Although Sook is much like a simple child herself, she is a sensitive soul who loves him. Both Buddy and Sook dream of a better life despite living in a stern and cold household under the control of other family members.  Their precious friendship is detailed here in this holiday story–another Depression-era Christmas that is made meaningful not by gifts but by their common bond and warmth for each other.

A local farmer’s warning about trespassers and a barbed wire fence do nothing to stop Sook and Buddy from collecting their pecans.
Buddy is played by Donnie Melvin.  Here, Sook proudly rattles off a long list of ingredients she wants to buy–even after the skeptical grocer questions their ability to pay.

As the holiday approaches, Sook announces it’s time to begin making fruitcakes.  Buddy knows what this means since it is a ritual he shares with Sook each year at Christmas.  Together they walk to a nearby farmer’s orchard to collect pecans.  Then they count the pennies, nickels, and dimes they have saved over the year to purchase the other ingredients from the grocery store.  The biggest challenge the partners face is acquiring the whiskey–a necessary ingredient in Sook’s recipé.  Whiskey is illegal in the rural South where they live but everyone still knows where to buy it.  The intimidating bootlegger Mr. Haha Jones ends up offering them a bottle in trade for a fruitcake.

With much trepidation, Buddy knocks on the door of the rowdy and disorderly cafe run by Haha Jones.

The two friends put every effort into baking the finest fruitcakes they can craft.  Sook decides they can afford to make thirty cakes–all of which are baked as gifts for people.  Some of the cakes are destined to go to people Sook admires, such as President Roosevelt and missionaries from far away places, and some of the cakes go to folks who have showed them a bit of kindness in the past year. 

After the baking is through, Sook naively suggests they taste the remaining whiskey–a drink neither has ever drank before. Soon Sook and Buddy are both singing and dancing in the kitchen.

The party and merriment is quickly extinguished by the stern elderly aunts.  Not only do they criticize poor Sook’s bad judgement (read: ignorance) but they guilt the simple-minded woman into her bed to cry for the night.

After the fruitcakes are sent in the mail, Sook and Buddy set out to chop down a beautiful Christmas tree for themselves.  Next, they hand make paper decorations for the tree.  Having spent all their money on ingredients for the fruitcakes, Buddy and Sook make each other Christmas gifts–paper kites–just like they do every year. 

After opening the disappointing gifts from the other relatives in the house, Sook and Buddy escape into the kitchen to open their hand made kites on Christmas morning.

In the most touching and complex scene in the whole program, we hear Sook express how much she wishes she could buy Buddy a bike for Christmas.  When Buddy insists that he most values a hand made kite from her, viewers can see the brilliance of Page’s acting as the old woman’s face flashes from regret and longing to skepticism to relief and happiness.  Her dreams for wanting to offer Buddy more than she can give him are replaced by the joy of sharing her life with someone who values her.   Buddy is able to convince her that he treasures her above his own happiness.  If that’s not the Christmas spirit, I don’t know what is.

With his memories, Buddy’s friendship could last forever.

In the end of this autobiographical story, we see Sook and Buddy gaily flying their kites on Christmas morning in the pasture beyond their home.  The narration explains that this memory was the last Christmas he would share with Sook.  The following year it was decided by others that he should be sent away to military school. The wistful memory of Capote’s childhood Christmas remains as his connection to his precious friendship long after Sook left his life. 

Buddy and Sook taking their kites out on Christmas morning.
They lie in the grass, watching their kites soar.  Although I have no fond memories of kite flying on Christmas morning, I’m still moved by the emotions that are produced by the act of looking into the past.

Although their stories are quite different, you should see a commonality between Capote’s A Christmas Memory and Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales and even Jean Shepherd’s narration in A Christmas Story.  Reminiscing about happy times of the past is a tradition most of us engage in at Christmas time.  The act of remembering is what we do at Christmas–just as we decorate the tree, bake cookies, and gather with our loved ones. Although Truman’s memories are not your own, the very reminder of the act of reminiscing can be inspiring to recall past experiences that give us meaning and joy in our lives today.

You may be more familiar with the 1997 TV movie adapted from the same Capote short story–starring Patty Duke as Sook and Eric Lloyd as Buddy.  And, the 1994 TV movie One Christmas is based on another Truman Capote short story.  One Christmas continues the story of Buddy during a subsequent Christmas when he is sent to stay with his estranged father.  The two movies are worth seeking out and both still regularly air on TV during the holidays. However, neither is as wonderful, complex, and emotional as this 1966 classic.  Do you enjoy watching Christmas literary classics adapted for the screen and television?  Besides Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, do you have a favorite?

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