There is an obvious sadness and sense of loss at the passing of the cousin in this story, but most important, “A Christmas Memory” reveals a preoccupation with the theme of children suffering from the dominance of unfeeling adults. As a seven-year-old, Buddy was an innocent young boy who would not realize the full impact of insensitive, adult domination until later in life. The real hero of his memoir is his cousin, who remains a child at heart even into her sixties. The villains of the story are their relatives, a shadowy group of adults who do not display the sensitivity and the joy for life that Buddy and his cousin share.
The story’s villains are initially curtly described simply as the “other people [who] inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them.” The point of the story, however, is that these adults cannot be ignored forever. The wonderful times that Buddy and his cousin enjoy are inevitably interrupted by reminders of the presence and domination of these unfeeling adults. Buddy and his cousin lack ready money for their annual fruitcakes because they only receive “skinflint sums [that] persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered big money).” Two angry relatives burst into the whiskey-drinking scene, “potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scold,” and their annoyance on rising so early on Christmas morning is followed by an artificially leisurely breakfast that delays the two “children” from opening their presents. The unimaginative and practical Christmas gifts that Buddy receives indicate the gulf between him and the other adults. Naturally, he is disappointed with socks, a Sunday-school shirt, handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater and a subscription to The Little Shepherd. “It makes me boil,” he recalls. Finally, these all-powerful adults, “Those who Know Best,” send Buddy away to military school and a new home, separating him forever from his dear cousin.
Other adults in the story reinforce the theme—for example, the lazy wife of the rich mill owner who is offended because Buddy and his cousin will not sell their Christmas tree. Initially, Mr. Haha Jones, “a giant with razor scars across his cheeks,” appears to be another unfeeling adult. He is called Haha because he never laughs; however, he ultimately shows a more playful side. He smiles at their request for whiskey and instead of charging them two dollars, asks only for a sample fruitcake in return. He is finally declared to be different, “a lovely man.” Some of Buddy and his cousin’s “friends” are adults, but they also are different from the adults of their immediate family circle. They are mostly strangers who display sensitivity and friendliness—such as the Roosevelts, who send thank you notes for the fruitcakes, and the Wistons, a young California couple who once spent a pleasant hour chatting with the family on the porch after their car broke down.