All, Culture/Life, Faith

Lessons from “The Gift of the Magi”

The holiday season is a time of love and peace. A celebration of faith and tradition with family and friends. It’s a period of reflection, renewal, joy, and generosity.

Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.

Regrettably, the pressures of the commercialization and material expectations of this special season often make peace seem more like a dream than a reality for many people and often long before December even rolls around.

If you’re experiencing the stress of a hectic holiday and worrying excessively about checking off that to-do list more incessantly than Santa checks his list, a few minutes with O. Henry’s classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi” may help calm your jangled nerves.
     O. Henry, the pen name of William Henry Porter (1862-1910), was an American author renowned for his short stories, which frequently had a surprise or unexpected twist at the end. One of his best-known works is “The Gift of the Magi.”
     At fewer than ten pages, this story is ideal to pick up and read during a moment of down time amid the holiday bustle. You may just come away from it looking at all your tasks with fresh eyes.
(Warning: spoilers ahead!)
     This brief but impactful Christmas tale centers on a young married couple, Jim and Della Dillingham, who don’t have much money to buy one another Christmas presents. Consequently, they both secretly decide to sell a prized possession in order to purchase a gift for the other.
     A witty narrator guides the reader through this domestic drama, focusing mainly on the experience and journey of Della. Through Della’s and Jim’s struggles and triumphs, the reader is reminded of some important truths that apply not only during the holidays but throughout the whole year.
1) People are more important than possessions.
This lesson may be an obvious conclusion from the basic plot of the story, but it merits pondering nonetheless. As already mentioned, both Jim and Della possess something of which they are extremely proud.
     Jim owns a magnificent gold watch, a family heirloom that had belonged to his father and grandfather. “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 in envy,” writes O. Henry.
     Della’s point of pride is her voluminous, beautiful brown 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.”
Clearly, these were valuable objects to the Dillinghams.
     The action of the story begins on Christmas Eve when Della realizes that the $1.87 that she painstakingly saved for Jim’s Christmas present will never be enough for anything she deems worthy of her husband.
     Suddenly a flash of inspiration strikes her, and, looking in the mirror, she resolves to sell her bountiful hair in order to buy Jim something he deserves. She receives $20 for her locks, a handsome sum, and she immediately scours the stores for the perfect item.
We later learn that Jim has sold his cherished gold watch to buy something for Della. (Notice I’m not yet mentioning what they bought in exchange for their prized possessions.)
Jim and Della’s actions of selling a treasured item in order to bring happiness to one another reminds us to check our priorities.
     Do we put material wealth, goods, appearance over the happiness of our loved ones? Do we really consider the people for whom we are buying a gift, thinking of what they truly need or enjoy? Or do we select something perfunctorily out of obligation? What are we willing to give up for those we love?
This last question brings me to the next lesson.
2) True love involves sacrifice. Any type of love, be it of the romantic, familial, or friendship variety, necessarily involves giving of oneself, sometimes painfully, if it is to be a real love that abides and grows. By humbling themselves through relinquishing their points of pride in self-denial, Della and Jim exemplify this other-oriented love.
      When Della resolves to sell her hair, O. Henry notes, “Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.” Yet he also describes her eyes as having a “brilliant sparkle.” Her countenance is an accurate depiction of the bittersweet nature of sacrifice. Giving up her beautiful hair isn’t easy and once the deed is done, she worries about Jim’s reaction to her altered appearance. However, the sparkle in her eye indicates a deeper feeling of grace and sweetness in sacrificing for a loved one.

     We don’t know any reservations with which Jim may have grappled, but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that he also felt twinges of reluctance to part with something so high in monetary and sentimental value as his gold watch. Regardless, his action demonstrates that his love for his wife enabled him to give up a dear possession.

How do we serve those we love? Are we unselfish in giving of time and sharing our blessings, material or otherwise? Or do we like those people only because of how they can benefit us?

3) The most valuable gifts aren’t necessarily material goods. As you may have suspected by now if you’re unfamiliar with the tale, Jim and Della each selected an item for the other to complement his or her prized possession. Della bought an elegant gold chain for Jim’s watch, and Jim bought a lovely set of hair combs for which Della had wished. Materially speaking, their well-intentioned generosity was in vain since neither could use the gift. However, neither one is vexed for long.

Jim has a “peculiar expression” when he first sees his wife’s shorn locks. Furthermore, he must comfort Della, who is initially distressed when she unwraps her combs, but she soon smiles agreeably and remarks how fast her hair grows. When Jim sees his watch chain, he also smiles and suggests storing away their gifts temporarily. Della then prepares their supper.

As thoughtful as the material items were meant to be, Della and Jim’s sacrifice for each other was the gift of greater value.

O. Henry concludes his story by describing Jim and Della as “the magi,” saying that of all wise men this young couple is the wisest because of their self-sacrifice for each other.

We have been taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive and that we also receive when we give to others. However, we sometimes forget that the hidden ingredient behind the truth of these words is love. It is selfless love that animates sacrifice and makes it sweet and that empowers the act of giving to be something other than a mechanical offering.

O. Henry reminds us of this lesson through the fictional characters of Jim and Della.

The gift of self-sacrifice might entail giving up material goods like the Dillinghams did. Yet self-sacrifice could also mean we give up previously-made plans to take care of a sick loved one or to call a friend going through a hard time.

Self-giving could also come in the form of devoting time, energy, and resources to create something homemade (instead of store-bought) like a hand-knitted scarf, a home-cooked meal or a photo album of old memories accompanied by hand-written notes.

What better time than the holidays to re-ignite a more personal and selfless type of love in our attitude to gift-giving and in our interactions with loved ones and in our communities? We may find that our disquieting holiday stress melts into the joy and goodwill that this season is meant to celebrate.

Photographic Reproduction of Currier and Ives’ “American Homestead Winter.” Source: Wikimedia.
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