Do you know the touching Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi”, written by O. Henry in 1905? It tells the story of Jim and Della Dillingham Young, a poor, young married couple. They both had two things they are really proud of and value. Della had long brown hair “rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her” (O Henry). Jim was really proud of his gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s and which was the only object of value he owed.
The short story begins on the day before Christmas with Della counting her meagre savings of one dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all she had to buy Jim a Christmas present, even though she had been saving every penny for months. An intoxicating idea came to her. Della decided to sell her hair to purchase a beautiful chain for Jim’s gold watch.
Nervously, she waited for Jim to come home at night, worried he might be upset and be appalled at her hair cut short like a school boy’s. “Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for a moment… and now she whispered: ‘Please God, make him think I am still pretty’” (O. Henry).
When Jim entered through the door, Della did not know what to think. “His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face” (O. Henry).
After he had asked a few times incredulously, “Your hair is gone?”, Jim pulled out a packet, his Christmas gift for Della. Excitedly, she opened it. It was a set of beautiful tortoise shell combs, with jeweled rims, which she had longed for and never thought she would get. And now they were hers, but her hair was gone!
Then she remembered that she still had her gift for Jim, the chain to put on his gold watch. Expectantly waiting for Jim to pull out his watch to attach the new chain to it, she finds out that he has sold his pocket watch, his prized heir loom, to buy Della the set of combs.
Henry finishes saying “The magi… invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication” but no gift as valuable as the ones these two young people had given to each other was among them.
I have always really liked this short story and the message of two lovers having sacrificed the one thing which was precious to them in order to give the other what they most wished for. This year, when I re-read the story it struck me how it also is a story about embracing imperfections. How useless could one say is a set of decorative combs for short hair and how even more useless a chain when the watch is gone. Yet, both of them—after their initial shock—lovingly embrace each other, each others gifts and the imperfection of their situation.
Della responds to the set of combs by hugging them and saying with a smile, “’My hair grows so fast, Jim!’” (O. Henry) And Jim, when she give him the chain, “tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled. ‘Dell,’ he said, ’let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present…And now suppose you put the chops on’” (O. Henry).
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