Wednesday, December 24, 2008

They Are the Wisest: The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

For a classy and classic American Christmas tale, there is none better than O. Henry's evergreen story of the two poor newlyweds who each sell his or her most prized possession to give the other the perfect gift on their first Christmas Eve together.

James Dillingham Young is twenty-two, already Della's husband, struggling to support the two of them on twenty dollars a week, eight of which go for the rent on their shabby flat in New York City. Della is a frugal money manager, but she has only been able to eke out $1.87 in savings to buy Jim's gift, a paltry sum even in 1906.

As she dabs at her tear-stained face before the mirror, Della's eyes fall upon her hair, and as she lets it down and brushes it lovingly, an idea takes shape:

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made almost a garment for her.

Before she can change her mind, Della dashes off to Mdme. Safronie's Hair Goods, where she sells her long hair for the bountiful sum of $20, just enough to buy a platinum watch fob for Jim's cherished gold watch, passed down from his father and his grandfather, his only possession of value.

Back home, a curling iron heated in the gas light transforms Della's bob into a headful of short curls looking "wonderfully like a truant schoolboy's," just in time for Jim's return home from work. Jim is speechless at the sight of her hair and gives her a look that frightens Della a bit.

"You cut your hair?" he stammers.

"It's Christmas eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you," Della tells him and gives him the platinum watch fob. "Isn't it a dandy, Jim" she beams proudly.

Jim falls onto the sofa and tosses a wrapped gift upon the table. "If you'll unwrap that package, you may see why you had me going for a while at first," he laughs.

Of course, the box contains a beautiful set of three tortoise-shell combs, those Della had longed for so long in a Broadway shop window, perfect for setting off her glorious long hair. Then Jim confesses that to buy the combs, he has sold his gold watch.

"Let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em awhile," Jim says hopefully, with a smile and an loving embrace for Della. For, as O. Henry says in his closing,

And here we have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise these days, let it be said that of all those who gave gifts, these two were the wisest.... They are the Magi.

Luckily, for us, over a hundred years later, this story is available in two stunning editions, each more beautiful than the other. In The Gift of the Magi by Simon & Schuster, Lisbeth Zwerger's delicate, flowing pastel-tinged illustrations, set off inside an old-fashioned oval within each double-page spread, swirl with energy and anticipation as the classic short story unfolds just as William Sidney Porter wrote it so long ago.

In Candlewick Press' 2008 edition of The Gift of the Magi notable Irish artist P. J. Lynch illustrates the original text with luminous paintings which glow like gaslit daguerreotypes from the period.

You can't go wrong with either of these oversized editions, both of which give their extraordinary illustrators a chance to illuminate anew for us this most famous of American short stories for the holiday season.



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