“‘The Gift of the Magi’ is a short story, written by O. Henry (a pen name for William Sydney Porter), about a young married couple and how they deal with the challenge of buying secret Christmas gifts for each other with very little money. As a sentimental story with a moral lesson about gift-giving, it has been a popular one for adaptation, especially for presentation at Christmas time. The plot and its "twist ending" are well-known, and the ending is generally considered an example of cosmic irony.”
That’s a heartless description of an utterly beautiful story. ‘The Gift of the Magi’ is one of the simplest and more touching stories you’ll ever read. Its beauty lies in the impulsive and overwhelming love the two leads hold for each other.
Della and James are a young married couple who struggle to get by on the $20 a week James earns. (The story was written in 1905.) Their flat is humble, their furnishings sparse and included in the flat’s price, and their clothes are plain. They have two possessions that are points of pride and speak of value beyond description in their world. The first is Della’s shining, rippling river of hair that would put the Queen of Sheba to shame. And the second is James’ gold watch handed to him by his father and to his father by his grandfather before him; a watch that would reportedly make King Solomon green with envy. The third thing they possess they are unaware of but it is greater by far than either of these valued possessions: their love for each other.
On Christmas Eve Della is weeping over having managed to save only $1.87 worth of pennies to buy a gift worthy of her James. On a sudden impulsive whim she decides to sell her glorious hair to earn more money for his gift. She does, without hesitating, and spends the rest of the day in a dreamy haze locating the perfect watch-chain to showcase James’ heirloom piece. When he arrives home she is nervous, fretting that he will be aghast at the loss of her prized locks, and for a moment he does indeed stand speechless. He then presents his gift to her: a set of wildly expensive tortoiseshell combs for her hair. The combs she’d been coveting without hope of possessing and for the hair she no longer has. She then gives him her gift. And he reveals, after he sees the watch-chain, that he sold the watch to buy her the combs.
The story is brief, simple, and almost unbearably sweet. Della and James, while existing in a narrative emotional ideal, are not over-written as full of treacle and unearned sentiment. They are just young, enamored of each other, and impulsively desiring to give each other a gift that speaks of how much they value each other. At the story’s conclusion the author writes: “And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."
I have been aware of this story most of my life, thanks to my Dad and his enduring interest in collecting Christmas story anthologies, and it has always wrenched my cold vampire heart in two. It’s something in the way James simply asks Della to put their gifts away and “keep ‘em awhile” after the presentation of both has revealed their sacrifices. It’s something about trying to consider only having one true valued possession to your name and then impulsively, without second thought, giving it up for somebody else. It’s something about how much they love each other and how utterly each gift both demonstrates that love and erases their individual treasures into a combined one they couldn’t have anticipated.
It breaks my heart and mends it in the same deft stroke. It’s a masterpiece of writing and of message.
There’s a reason ‘The Gift of the Magi’ is brought out each Christmas. It’s set at Christmas and is both an instructional on what gifts are supposed to be about and on the actual value of the season. Like so much Christmas fare it is about the heart of the holidays, not the trappings. But it works more keenly, more beautifully, like a knife to the heart, and leaves you quietly thinking about Della and James forever after it ends. They are the wisest. They are the magi.
- Corinne Simpson