The Gift of the Magi

This is a Christmas season tradition here at NewMexiKen. Go ahead, read it again. It makes everything about the season seem simpler yet more precious.

Merry Christmas!


The Gift of the Magi
by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), 1906.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And
sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two
at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and
the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent
imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied.
Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven
cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the
shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which
instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of
sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding
from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home.
A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar
description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout
for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no
letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal
finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a
card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a
former period of prosperity when its possessor was being
paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20,
though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a
modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham
Young came home and reached his flat above he was called
“Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young,
already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with
the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully
at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard.
Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with
which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny
she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a
week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had
calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for
Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for
something nice for him. Something fine and rare and
sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy
of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room.
Perhaps you have seen a pierglass in an $8 flat. A very thin
and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a
rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly
accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had
mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before
the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face
had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled
down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham
Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s
gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s.
The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in
the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair
hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her
Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the
janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement,
Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed,
just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling
and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below
her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then
she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered
for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on
the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown
hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle
still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the
stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair
Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected
herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly
looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s
have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a
practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings.
Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores
for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim
and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the
stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a
platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly
proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by
meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It
was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew
that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and
value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars
they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87
cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly
anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch
was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the
old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a
little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons
and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages
made by generosity added to love. Which is always a
tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny,
close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a
truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror
long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before
he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney
Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I
do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was
on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her
hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that
he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair
away down on the first flight, and she turned white for
just a moment. She had a habit of saying a little silent
prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she
whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He
looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only
twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a
new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter
at the scent of quail. 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.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way.
I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived
through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow
out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My
hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and
let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice–what a
beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as
if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the
hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like
me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air
almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “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 of my head
were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness,
“but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put
the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He
enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with
discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other
direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is
the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the
wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was
not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated
later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw
it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I
don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a
shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less.
But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me
going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper.
And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick
feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating
the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the
lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and
back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window.
Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled
rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair.
They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had
simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope
of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that
should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was
able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair
grows so fast, Jim!”

And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and
cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it
out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious
metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and
ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find
it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day
now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and
put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “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. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

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. Of all who give
and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they
are wisest. They are the magi.