“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry: The Wise Fools of Christmas

 Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat.
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

As Christmas carols draw mind and heart to the spirit of the season, the Church also calls for spiritual preparation through Advent. All are bidden with the shepherds to “go to Bethlehem and see” with minds and hearts cleansed to offer themselves to the Infant Christ, just as the Magi came bearing gifts.

The world also calls for preparation to get into the holiday mood—because, after all, Santa Claus is coming to town. Retailers clamor for business, coupling Christmas-readiness with overflowing shopping-carts. But Advent requires more than stuffed stockings and soft-minded platitudes such as “good will toward men.” Though not objectionable in itself, such clichés too often distract from the primary motive of purifying the interior life. The emphasis of Christmas preparation should not be simply shopping or a warm disposition toward others, but rather this interior purification—ensuring that the Christ Child will come to find “men of good will,” with souls in good order, aligned to His good Will.

Presents do have their place, though.

Just as the Son of Mary was God’s Gift to mankind, so mankind should offer himself as a gift to God; and thus do men and women give gifts to one another as a sign of the Love that unites them to He who was born, lived, died, and rose again for all. Gifts play a central part in the iconography of Christmas; though that part has been swelled disproportionately by a commercial culture that interprets the American pillar of “Freedom of Religion” as “Freedom from Religion,” and diverts the sacred tide of the season into secularism.

But Christmas can be restored if Christians learn how to give gifts.

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (pen-name for American author, William Sydney Porter, September 11, 1862—June 5, 1910) is a quintessential story of that spirit of sacrificial gift-giving that makes Christmas the joy it should be. It is a tiny tale of love, courage, tears, and terrible happiness. Though short, its memory stays long with readers, for people do not soon forget things that leave them brokenhearted.

gift3It tells of Mr. and Mrs. James Dillingham Young—“two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.” With no money to speak of and every imaginable desire to buy a Christmas present for their spouse, these two—this poor Della and Jim—surrender their chief possessions to purchase a gift for the other. Della sells her magnificent hair; hair so magnificent that “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.” Jim sells his precious gold watch; a watch so precious that “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 from envy.”

The tragedy that follows their selflessness is what makes their story poignant and perfect. Neither of the James Dillingham Youngs realized what gift they were giving when they went with iron wills and trembling hearts through the cold Christmas Eve to Mme. Sofronie’s Hair Goods of All Kinds and the pawnshop. Out they came stripped of their prizes, but possessed now to buy a prize for their other. Jim and Della believed they were giving a gift of great price to the one they loved best, only to discover with some shock, a few tears, and much quiet joy that they were, in fact, giving a gift that was priceless.

In their material riches, Della and Jim are held up next to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. With the loss of their riches, they are no longer compared to Old Testament figures of wealth, but equated with New Testament ones—the Magi. These two young lovers are described as being foolish (as lovers are); but sometimes it requires foolishness to arrive at wisdom (as lovers prove). The “wonderfully wise men” called the Magi “invented the art of giving Christmas presents.” But did they think themselves fools until that supreme moment in Bethlehem? “We are the three wise men of yore, and we know all things but the truth,” writes G.K. Chesterton. Did they hear T.S. Eliot’s voices singing in their ears “saying that this was all folly” until they found the “satisfactory” place? No one can know the wisdom of giving the gift of oneself until one gives oneself up like a fool. In giving gifts at Christmas, people of faith must give of themselves first, and then in presents. There is no gift if there is no sacrifice, and gift giving should always involve some tears—the waters that make gifts pure. “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest,” O. Henry concludes. “Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

When Marco Polo trekked through the city of Sheba in the 13th century, as recorded by A.V. Williams Jackson, he discovered three marvelous and mysterious burial monuments. The local Persians explained they were the tombs of Magi named Jaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Three days journey hence, at a village called Cala Ataperistan, the famous traveler was told the story of these Magi who were also kings. Long ago, they had visited a distant land to worship a Newborn King and had seen many prodigies and wonders. The kings brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Legend had it that if the Child accepted gold, it would signify He was King; if frankincense, He was God; and if myrrh, a Man. The Child accepted all three, and the faith of the three kings led them to see, as did the Star that brought them there, that here was truly the King of kings, true God and true Man.

Like the Magi, we, too, worship the King and God and Sacrifice. And, like those kings—and like Jim and Della, too—are we not royalty? We are sons and daughters of the King. If our gifts are true, be they ever so poor, they will be found rich. If our gifts are gifts of love, Love Himself will purify them. If our gifts are gifts of self, they will be “satisfactory.” Then, and only then, are we true gift-givers.

Then we are the Magi.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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