“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

by Kung Fu Zu   12/4/13

This is, perhaps, my favorite Christmas story. There are no extraneous characters, no skinflint capitalists, supernatural beings sent to instruct us or unfortunate types who let us feel good about ourselves because we feel sorry for them. It is a story which could have happened, and surely similar acts, as portrayed in the story, have happened countless times throughout history.

Jim and Della, a young couple, who love each other deeply, live in a scruffy $8 a week apartment somewhere in a large city, probably New York. While not suffering grinding poverty, times are difficult and it takes all of Della’s skill as a housewife to make ends meet as Jim’s pay has been reduced from $30 to $20 a week.

Although they do not have much, both have a possession of which they are very proud. For Della it is her beautiful hair. For Jim, it is the gold watch which his father and grandfather owned before him.

The day is December 24th and while Jim is at work, Della counts the savings she has been able to scrimp together over the last year. Della despairs as she wants to buy a present worthy of Jim and all she has is $1.87. After a short cry, she looks into the cheap mirror on the wall, unpins her hair and watches it fall to its full length. With a firm resolve, Della puts on her coat and marches to “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds” and sells her beautiful tresses for $20. With this in hand, Della sets out for Jim’s present. She finds it in the form of a platinum fob chain for his watch.

Back in their apartment, Della does her best to make her, now boyishly short, hair attractive for Jim. Nervous that Jim may not react well to the new look, she goes on with her daily routine and anxiously awaits Jim’s return.

Hearing his footstep on the stair, she sits near the door with the fob chain in her folded hand. Jim opens the door and stops cold as he sees her. For some seconds he stands stunned and does not seem to understand what has happened. Taking control of the situation, Della makes it clear that her hair is gone and says, “You needn’t look for it, …It’s sold, I tell you—sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs on my head were numbered, …but nobody could ever count my love for you.”

Jim snaps out of his trance, gives Della a long embrace and then takes a package out of his pocket. He tosses it on the table while telling her, “no hair cut could make him like her any less.” Della picks up the package and opens the gift only to go from a scream of joy to tears of dismay. Inside the box is an expensive tortoise shell comb set with jeweled rims, which Della has been eyeing for some time. Recovering quickly, Della lets Jim know all is well by saying that her “hair grows fast.”

She then holds out the platinum fob chain for Jim telling him how she hunted all over town for it and how wonderful it will look on his watch. Instead of taking the fob, Jim flops down on the couch, put his hands behind his head and smiled. He then says, “Dell…let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs.”

In the space of a few pages, which take less than ten minutes to read, O. Henry manages to give us many truths, but I believe there is one message that most closely touches on the true meaning of Christmas. That is the willingness to sacrifice for others or as O. Henry calls it “the ravages made by generosity added to love.”

And if you think about it, this is the original reason for Christmas; “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.”
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6 Responses to “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I read this (along with several other Christmas stories) last year. O. Henry was always one for irony (the first story of his I read was “The Ransom of Red Chief” in 9th grade).

    • Kung Fu Zu says:

      I have liked O. Henry since junior high school. Somewhere in my boxes of books, I have a collection of his stories. I think he is the American equivalent of Maupassant, but better; certainly funnier.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I have a collection in one of our library rooms (theoretically a small bedroom, but we only need 2 of our 4 bedrooms for their normal purpose). When I read the story last year, I also read some of his other Christmas-related stories.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I think he is the American equivalent of Maupassant, but better; certainly funnier.

        Speaking of funny, I remember this bit from Steve Martin’s book, “Cruel Shoes”:

        Gift Of The Magi Indian Giver

        Carolyn wanted so much to give Roger something nice for Christmas, but they didn’t have much money, and they had to spend every last cent on candy for the baby. She walked down the icy streets and peered into shop windows.

        “Roger is so proud of his shinbones. If only I could find some way to get money to buy shinbone polish.” Just then, a sign caught her eye. “Cuticles bought and sold.” Many people had told Carolyn of her beautiful cuticles, and Roger was especially proud of them, but she thought, “This is the way I could buy Roger the shinbone polish!” And she rushed into the store.

        Later at home, she waited anxiously as Roger came up the steps of their flat. He opened the door and wobbled over to the fireplace, suspiciously holding one arm behind his back. “Merry Christmas!” they both said, almost simultaneously. Roger spoke. “Hey, Nutsy, I got you a little something for Christmas.” “Me too,” said Carolyn, and they exchanged packages.

        Carolyn hurriedly opened her package staring in disbelief. “Cuticle Frames?! But Roger, I sold my cuticles so I could afford to buy you some shinbone polish!”

        “Shinbone polish!” said Roger, “I sold my shinbones to buy you the cuticle frames!” Roger wobbled over to her.

        “Well, I’ll be hog-tied,” said Carolyn.

        “You will? Oh, boy!” said Roger. And it turned out to be a great Christmas after all.

  2. faba calculo says:

    Yes, I was shocked to read once that O. Henry’s reputation in writer’s circles isn’t what it should be. I can see their criticism: his stories seem to exist all for the ending, with the beginning and middle serving no other purpose, but so what? They were great endings. Besides they were SHORT stories, so it’s not like tons of words were being wasted. Hell, it’s not like any were being wasted. You just can’t write War and Peace in ten pages.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    I want to note that Turner Classic Movies will show O. Henry’s Full House, a movie featuring 5 of his stories (including “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Gift of the Magi”) at 8 p.m. EST on December 16.

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