By Joseph Ross
For many years, when I taught high school seniors, I had a Christmas tradition I kept on the day before Christmas break. The seniors, who were often annoyed that they had to come to school on a day when not much would happen, rambled into the classroom in their usual way. When I didn’t have my normal notebook with me, they knew something was up. I told them to pull all the desks close in a corner of the room. We tried to get our desks as close together as possible. I was going to read them a story.
At first, they always laughed and thought it quaint. But these were students who, more often than not, were not read to as children, and once they saw how psyched I was, and that I would let them put their heads on the desks, (which I normally never allowed) their bravado fell and they were kids.
I began a very slow reading of the awesome O. Henry short story, Gift of the Magi. Occasionally, a student had read it before, but not often. I have to say, this story transfixed most of them. With their chins in their hands, their eyes wide open, they stared and listened intently. Often, if one of them said anything during the reading, the others shushed him. I found it so tender that these usually hardened Washington, D.C. teens yearned for a story. And no one can give out a story like O. Henry.
As most of you probably know, the story is of two young people, deeply in love, on Christmas Eve. Della has $1.87 to buy her love, Jim, a gift. But she also has the most beautiful, long hair. She knows a salon that will cut and buy her hair, so reluctantly, but with resolve, she lets it all go. It’s for Jim.
Like Della’s hair, Jim has a magnificent pocket watch, an heirloom reaching back to his father and grandfather. Jim decides that to afford something lovely for Della, he will sell his watch. And what does he buy her? A set of hair combs that she has envied in a store window. To complete the scene, she buys him a beautiful chain for the watch he has now sacrificed for her.
The story climaxes when Jim arrives home and there is Della, in short hair, cooking their dinner. She is excited about the gift she has bought him but she can’t understand why he is so troubled. He, of course, can see her missing hair and knows her gift is the combs. She cannot see the absent watch, but thinks nothing of it. When they finally reveal the sacrificial nature of their gifts, they end up holding each other, sitting in the living room as the pork chops cook.
O. Henry’s story ends in a most poetic and powerful way. He describes Della and Jim as people “…who sacrificed for each other the greatest treasure of their house.” He goes on to praise them saying, “Of all who give and receive gifts, they are the wisest. Everywhere, they are the wisest. They are the magi.”
Once I finished reading the story, I told my now-smiling-sometimes-one-or-two-teary-eyed-but-cool high school seniors, that my Christmas wish for them is that someday they too will sacrifice for someone like Jim and Della did. And that someday, someone will likewise sacrifice for them. I still have the same wish. I wish that now for you too, reader. Merry Christmas.