My dad ruined Christmas for me when I was very young with six pages of text, which he read to a very small me — feet sticking out over the edge of his big recliner, nestled into the crook of his arm — when Christmas still meant presents, and wrapping paper carnage, and cookie care packages from grandma in Maryland, and shiny ornaments, and twinkly lights and very little else.
The story he read, which came from up high on one of our bookshelves inside a fancy, embossed little red number that said “A Collection of Short Stories” on the side in gold, was O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” My dad pulled me up into his chair one day and said he was going to tell me the story of “irony and love” (I actually remember him saying that) before opening the book and beginning. (The full text is here. It’s only six pages. You should read it.)
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. She had put it aside, one cent and then another and then another, in her careful buying of meat and other food. Della counted it three times. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was nothing to do but fall on the bed and cry. So Della did it.
That’s how the story of Della and Jim begins. Della fretting over buying the perfect Christmas gift for “her Jim.”
“She had had many happy hours planning something nice for him. Something nearly good enough.
Something almost worth the honor of belonging to Jim.”
The first thing that shines through this extraordinary little tale is the love Della has for her Jim. When she finally cries her way into figuring out how to make a little extra money and discovers the perfect gift — a pocketwatch chain for Jim’s only thing of value, an inherited gold watch — there’s not a sentence in literature that expresses more profound affection:
It was a gold watch chain, very simply made. Its value was in its rich and pure material. Because it was so plain and simple, you knew that it was very valuable. All good things are like this.
It was good enough for The Watch.
As soon as she saw it, she knew that Jim must have it. It was like him. Quietness and value—Jim and the chain both had quietness and value. She paid twenty-one dollars for it. And she hurried home with the chain and eighty-seven cents.
I won’t give away the ending (seriously, read it), but let’s just say O. Henry is known for delivering a twist ending that makes M. Night Shyamalan look like a film school novice. And what Della and her husband discover in their mutual search for the perfect gift is the beauty of sacrifice for the beloved. And if that isn’t the story of God sacrificing his only son to the sin and violence of mankind because he so loved the world, I don’t know what is.
The sacrament of marriage is supposed to mirror the connection that God has to his church. Della and Jim embody that connection, selflessly giving up the things they value to show their love for each other, and being content in the discovery that those sacrifices don’t always yield quite what one expects. But often the act of sacrifice is enough. O. Henry compares his characters’ sacrifice for each other to the gifts of the Magi (the Wise Men), brought from far-away lands to honor the birth of the baby Jesus. Because in the selfless act of love, even when it goes hand in hand with the mistakes Della and Jim make, there is wisdom. Maybe infinite and ineffable wisdom.
I never thought of Christmas the same way again after that reading. I had to go back and re-read that story many times over the years; something always compelled me to do so, and that something was planted during the 10 minutes I spent sitting with my father, listening to him gently tell the tale of Della and her Jim. I also grew up with an understanding of love that has proved a difficult, perhaps quaint, notion to hold in these cynical times.
But I hold to it fast, because my father ruined me a little when I was very young.
I’m so glad he did.