There's a strange, heart-wrenching side effect of gift-giving and receiving: not the thought of unwrapping another ugly sweater you don't need, but the knowledge that someone who truly cares about you went to the trouble of getting it in the first place. You realize then it's the thought that counts -- and that the thought alone is often more than enough.
As we take a deep breath to dive into our holiday shopping lists -- our breaths made shorter by our tense economies and ecologies -- it's a good time to read or reread (or listen to) that famous tale of giving, O Henry's "The Gift of the Magi."
Sure, it's didactic and moralistic, told in flowery and unpretty prose. But the story's short and, though published 102 years ago today, just in time for Christmas 1906, it fits right into Christmas 2008 and every gift-giving holiday.O Henry tells the story of the Dillingham Youngs, a young, impoverished married couple who have entered hard times ("Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D.") and can barely afford the rent on their one-room New York studio apartment. But they will go to great and sadly ironic lengths to get each other just the right Christmas presents.
Only by selling her long hair to a wig-maker, Della can afford to buy Jim a beautiful chain for his gold watch. But to get her the set of tortoise-shell hair combs she once ogled in a store window, Jim sells his watch.
The story's twist is a poignant, lump-in-your-throat moment. If the couple's purchases turn out to be foolish and futile, their resolve to look past the gifts -- and savor the selfless love that inspired them -- is just the opposite.
O Henry, or William Sydney Porter, allegedly wrote the piece in a matter of hours at New York's Pete's Tavern, which still sits near Gramercy Park. It's easy to imagine the man sipping his brandy, writing determinately as a kind of warning to the New Yorkers bustling about outside, shopping for presents, as the real meaning of the holidays, of giving, flitted by.
If he were alive now, what kind of advice would he give to us this globalized, recession-ized Christmas / Hanukkah / Diwali / Kwanzaa? "Make something DIY out of recycled materials"? "Give a donation in your loved one's honor"? "Get a gift certificate" or "give an experience, like a yummy organic dinner, or a romantic walk in the park"? Surely not "just put on the credit card."
Not one for ambiguity, O Henry ends his tale by detailing the metaphor of the three wise men, the most famous gift givers:
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They 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. 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. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
"The Gift of the Magi", O Henry