The Memoir and Christmas: Finding Meaning in Family Memories

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays all! Following is a post from my “latent” blog, Memoir Crafter, that speaks to the season and to the craft of memoir.

The Christmas season is upon us like snow on North Dakota. With it comes a sleighful of memories. But how to write meaningfully about this most evocative of holidays in a way that engages the reader?

In a first draft of my client’s memoir, I mined a five-page document he had written about the Christmases he remembered from his childhood in Germany in the early 1950s and inserted it into the memoir in chronological order. I found the cultural details colorful and fascinating: the walk through the snow to the Gothic Stadkirche in the center of town; the candles on the tree; the Christmas Eve rollmoepse (rolled herring); the recitation of poems and the small tables of presents for each child. I researched Christmases of the 1950s and found a cache of wonderful photos on the Internet from which to draw for authentic descriptions of street scenes and interiors. My client loved it.

When it came to using the memory in the memoir, however, it was too much. It slowed everything down. It became a “travelogue” of a German Christmas.

I cut the entire section. Later I asked myself several questions: How does this anecdote advance the themes that are emerging in the book? Where is the best place to insert memories about a childhood Christmas (or other holiday or event)? Can these memories be tied to a later event?

In the rewrite, the details that are important to my client reappeared but in much shorter form. And in what turned out to be a second book entirely (a medical memoir), they had shrunk to one single paragraph in a chapter about his mother’s death decades later. Juxtaposed with a description of the mother’s last Christmas, these childhood memories have attained a poignancy that they did not have in the earlier draft. They deliver a message about the importance of family and tradition and the cultural transmission of values and family lore from one generation to the next.

So, now I invite you to think about a favorite Christmas memory and to write it down. I invite you to approach this exercise within the framework of a theme: family, friendship, regret, parental sacrifice, romance…whatever emerges as you think about it. How would you make a memory meaningful to a reader? How would you flesh out the significant people–what details would make them come alive? What reflections from your adult perspective would add meaning?

If you have trouble beginning, take out an old photograph. Nothing stirs our memories better than those glimpses into our past. And while you are mining that photo for details, don’t limit yourself to the visual. What were the smells associated with the scene, the sounds and the tactile impressions, even the taste?

Towards that end, I have illustrated today’s post with a photograph of my siblings and me (and a cousin in the upper left) taken circa 1958. This photo was shot at a time that precedes memory for me, but the simplicity of the tree and the fact that my parents had us kneel says much about the place and time and culture I was born into.

And by the way…I am the impious child who will not kneel. This detail is what I might use as a jumping off point if I were to write a memoir scene of Christmases past, how that little girl, her older, uber-pious sister in the middle, and her prayerful twin on the left would become, respectively, a quarter decade into the future, a free thinker, a lesbian CEO, and a nun.

How have you used Christmas memories in your writing?

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