The Gift of 'The Gift of the Magi'

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Children's Television Workshop


Just over 105 years ago, William Sydney Porter sat in a dim, high-backed booth—the third one from the window—in Pete's Tavern on Irving Place, which cross-sects the Gramercy area of Manhattan. While patrons drank at the adjacent rosewood bar—some say moved by romance in his own life, others think it could be as simple as witnessing a stolen glance from one stranger to his beau—he sat and penned one of the most enduring love stories to come after the turn of the 20th century. That writer is better known as O. Henry, and according to legend—a plaque commemorates that booth at Pete's over a century later—he scripted his famous "The Gift of the Magi" there.

The indelible short story was first published on December 10, 1905 in the New York Sunday World Magazine. O. Henry was among the most popular writers of his day, with "Magi" being published at the height of his fame. The tale, a simply structured, exquisitely told story of self-sacrifice, generosity, and love, closed with the O. Henry signature: an ironic twist. The writing has its flaws, and no scholar would venture that it's the century's finest romance, yet in its simplicity ;it finds its stakes and its resonance. After all, is there any task more dire than showing your one and only how much you care? It's why "The Gift of the Magi" has endured for more than a century, popping up in references everywhere from Sesame Street to Glee.

"One dollar and eighty-seven cents," the story begins on Christmas Eve, "That was all." From its opening the story is relatable; destitution is a theme that will never lose relevance. Della and Jim are 22-year-old newlyweds, earning a $20 a week income, and living in a humble apartment—the kind furnished with a "shabby little couch" and pier-glass window panes. There's already too much to empathize with: being young, poor, and madly in love...and inhabiting a glorified closet called "home."

"She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result," O. Henry wrote, the tragedy being that Della was still unable to afford a Christmas present for her beloved. She had one holiday desire, and that's to be able to buy "something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim." It's in that line that the magnitude of their love is conveyed, to be filled with so much admiration for someone, to hold them to such high regard that things must be worthy.

What happens next most of us should know, having already felt that burning lump rise in our throats upon reading it, shedding a tear at its dénouement. Della and Jim, we learn, have but two luxurious possessions: her cascade of beautiful hair and his grandfather's gold watch. So deeply in love with her husband, Della can't bear not giving him a Christmas gift and sells off her hair to purchase a fob chain for his watch (her one heartbreaking regret: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."). When she gifts Jim the chain, we discover that he has pawned the watch to afford the tortoise-shell combs Della had been eyeing to comb her hair. "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," he says, as readers swoon, "But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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