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."
Jim and Della live their lives with such a sense of humor (O. Henry's wit is ever present, even in "Magi"). His nonchalant reaction to the irony (yes, Alanis this is ironic) makes the love story even more moving; she puts the pork chops in the frying pan, and their lives as a passionate couple move on. It's the consummate illustration of love being greater than the possession, and the case in point of there being a gift in giving. In the age where shoppers line up at 3 am to buy a HDTV at a 10 percent discount, perhaps the story constantly resurfaces to serve as a sort of moral compass, steering us back on course to the "season of giving."
And resurface it does, and often. Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie played out their own version of Della and Jim in 1978's Christmas Eve on Sesame Street TV special. Ernie pawns his beloved rubber duckie in order to buy a cigar box for his best friend, Bert, to store his paper clip collection in. Bert visits the same shop to barter his paper clip collection in exchange for a soap dish home to give Ernie for said floating fowl. Watch the first part of their exchange here:
The act of selfless love plays out in everything from a one-hour musical adaptation "Magi" starring Gordon MacRae in 1958 to the 1978 television movie The Gift of Love starring none other than Marie Osmond. Even Fox's Glee for all its heavy-handedness, camp, and characters brimming with teenage entitlement, appropriately referenced O. Henry in its most recent episode:
O. Henry was a private man who hardly gave interviews and was extremely guarded about his past (which included charges of embezzlement, an exile to Honduras, and an ensuing prison stint). But what is known is that he was devoted to his wife, Athol. They, like Jim and Della, married young and poor, living in rented cottages while he made ends meet as a banker. While he was in Latin America, she purportedly auctioned off a handkerchief to buy him a Christmas present; he returned to the States, and thus was sent to prison, to be with Athol as she died of tuberculosis. It's rumored that O. Henry wrote "The Gift of the Magi" in a hurried two or three hours because he was past deadline—and that may be true. But it's because he knew such great love that he was able to pen it so quickly.
It's also why I re-read his short story every year at this time. It's a reminder of the way we should be living, with love first, giving second, and possession below all. Admittedly, this is not the most original or nuanced analysis of O. Henry's short story, but, heck, his short story wasn't that original or nuanced either. That's precisely what makes it the default Christmas tale, and what gives me hope for finding that same kind of plain and simple love.
"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 . . . They are the magi."