"The manner of giving is worth more than the gift."
- Pierre Corneille
Other than the Biblical Christmas story, from which most others have sprung, my favorite story of the season would have to be, "The Gift of the Magi," by early 20th-century American author O. Henry.
Unlike the subplot in the Bible story, O. Henry's "magi" are not "wise men from the east," and there are no baskets of gold, frankincense and myrrh for Jim or Della, the poor young couple living in a shabby, $8-a-week flat. Still, no reader comes away from this touching tale without knowing why the author chose his symbolic title.
As the story begins, Della is counting the money she has saved to buy a Christmas present for her beloved Jim. She weeps, because $1.87 isn't nearly enough to buy the platinum fob chain for Jim's one splendid possession, the gold watch that's been in his family for three generations. Della has a prized possession, too: her lovely, long hair which "fell to her knees like a cascade of brown waters."
Suddenly Della has an idea. Madame Sofronie down the street buys hair to make "hair goods of all kinds." Yes, she'll buy Della's hair - for $20. With a dollar of her precious $1.87, she has enough money to buy Jim that $21 chain to match his elegant watch. She worries he won't find her as attractive without her hair, but hopes he'll understand why she had it cut.
Jim, too, has a heart larger than his purse, and a gift idea that will delight his Della.
The moment of truth comes when Jim arrives home with the beautiful set of combs Della wanted for her hair, purchased with the money he received from selling his watch.
O. Henry could have ended his story there, leaving Jim and Della's reactions to their bittersweet Christmas predicament to our imagination, or to how we might have felt if the story had been our own. Instead, he has Della telling Jim, "my hair grows so fast," and he assuring her there isn't anything in the way of a haircut that could make him "like my girl" any less.
"Let's put our present away and keep 'em for a while," Jim says. "They're too nice to use now."
Today's Christmases aren't nearly as lean for me as they once were, but it's not a made-up story that many of those earlier, under-financed years were just as happy as the one I'm preparing for now. There were the years when all our family gifts were homemade: knitted scarves and mittens for us children, a favorite cake for my father, a new apron and, as an exception to things home-made, dime-store perfume for my mother. Some years our parents placed new socks and underwear under the tree, too, combining need with surprise.
I'm not sure why the year we lived with my grandparents - because we couldn't afford even an $8-flat for ourselves - is such a special memory for me, but I've never forgotten it. I thought the contrast between their bayberry hedge and large, blue spruce tree against the snow and white-clapboard house created a beautiful Christmas scene.
Then, when we gathered around a smaller spruce we had cut down ourselves and decorated with popcorn, cranberries and piles of crinkly foil "icicles," my favorite gift was a child-sized broom and dustpan, the latter on a swiveling handle as tall as the broom. Now I could help my grandmother clean house, another gift I thought then: spending more time with a woman I loved dearly.
he real gifts from my parents' and grandparents' example, however, may have been learning the lesson of "making do." Years later, the first year my student-husband and I were married, we decorated our small, table-top tree with our Christmas cards and - what else? - strings of popcorn, cranberries and crinkly foil icicles.
Eight dollars a week or a million a year, O. Henry concludes, it doesn't matter which.
"Oh, all who give and receive gifts such as these are the wisest. They are the magi."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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