The most important stylistic feature of “A Christmas Memory” is the sense of immediacy that Capote creates by writing in the present tense. Although he writes as an adult remembering a childhood experience at least twenty years earlier, he avoids the feeling of distance that narrating a memoir in the past tense would create or the impersonal objectivity that a third-person narrator might lend. Anxious to create a strong emotional context, he favors the immediacy of the present tense, almost as if he would prefer the memoir to be a play. Indeed, in 1966 the story was adapted for television, with Capote reading the story as a voice-over narrator.
The story begins by asking readers to become an audience, almost as if they were sitting in a theater: “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.” Before the first paragraph ends, the story slips into the present tense, thereby creating a dramatic quality: “Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar. A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window.”
This immediate dramatic quality is maintained throughout the story. At times it describes past events that are important to the moment—“Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest”—but it is always quick to return the reader’s attention to the dramatic present—“at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee.” At times, Capote even includes what might be seen as stage directions—“Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scold. Listen to what they have to say.” At other times, he writes what sounds like directions in a film script: “Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass” or “Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.”
The story ends with “This is our last Christmas together. Life separates us,” using “is” instead of “was.” Even as Capote recalls the passage of time that eventually led to the death of his cousin, he holds on to the present tense as long as he can—“a morning arrives in November, a leafless, birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: ’Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather!’” In the last words of the story, Buddy is an adult again, but he still remembers in the present tense: “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 toward heaven.”