Throwback Thursday Books — “The Gift of the Magi”

I have certain items that are required reading on or near Christmas Day. I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and watch it in as many productions as I can (as a Trekkie, I must give my allegiance to the performance of Sir Patrick Stewart). I look for “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” to fill in the spaces. We must, for the sake of my spouse, watch “Elf,” the piece that showcases Will Ferrell’s talents like no other. We will miss the chance to see the musical version of “Elf” at the Rose Theater in Omaha this year (it seems to be turning into a holiday tradition, we hope).

But, it’s not really a complete Christmas season for me without several readings of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”

I know it’s not a book but rather a short story. Well, I suppose you can ask for a refund on your ticket if that’s a big problem. This is another treasure handed on to me first, if memory serves, by Mrs. Margaret Hoorneman in our freshman English class at the LeMars Community Junior High School. I believe that it was in an anthology she used to teach us the basics of literature.

It was also my first exposure to The Grand Inquisitor and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” I’m a sucker for a good story. If my memory is off after forty years and the credit goes to Miss Luckett in high school, I apologize. I was blessed with some great teachers.

Photo by cottonbro on

LibriVox has a lovely public domain recording of the story here: I’ve become partial to that reading, recorded one hundred years after the story published in 1905.

The story is reputed to have been written at a local tavern. The story has been adapted, performed, read, pirated and parodied hundreds of times since it was first written. If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, O. Henry’s work is deeply beloved and admired. It can be critiqued as underwriting wealth inequality in the late Gilded Age. It is sexist and classist and drips with bourgeois piety. I know — but I still love the story.

If you have not read or listened to the story, I won’t spoil it for you. It is, however, a testimony to the power and beauty of self-giving love. It is not about the biblical magi, the odd collection of astrologers who, Matthew’s gospel reports, made their way to the Bethlehem manger with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are mentioned in the story but serve as foils rather than heroes.

The story is, whether by intention or not, a lovely illustration of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:25 — “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Love overcomes judgment in this little tale, and we are the better for the result: “let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.” O. Henry concludes. “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

It is a poignant story in a year when we are tempted to focus overmuch on what we are missing this Christmas season. I want to apologize to every pastor who has had to preach a sermon arguing that masks and social distance and pandemic hygiene are good and necessary things. I want to apologize for each of us and all of us who have whined over our deficits while others have real problems — like unemployment and illness and death. Most of us, in churches at least, have so very much in abundance that our complaining is embarrassing — especially at Christmas.

Perhaps Della and Jim can help us to focus on what makes Christmas the holiday, the holy day, that it is — the gift of self-giving love that doesn’t depend on the stuff of buildings or traditions or ribbons or bells. We are reminded that Love has come to us at Christmas. And that love has come to us in a person — a person who became poor that we might know the riches of God’s grace and mercy.

Everything else is just wrapping paper.

So I am reading this little story several times this year, with gratitude and joy that a simple comedy of errors committed for the beloved can speak to me with such encouragement and hope.