I had read this story before but reading it this time, on the spongy brown carpet of the piano teachers’ house, within sight of a woodstove and warm with both Phoebe and Josie in my lap, I still sniffled. You have probably heard this story, too. It is an old one, frequently adapted and retold, but that frequent use serves only to polish it to a shine.
The Gift of the Magi tells the story of young Jim and Della Dillingham Young, newlyweds who face Christmas together with their savings scraped bare. Della wonders how she can possibly afford a gift for Jim, decides that she must find a way, and does it. But the story doesn’t end there, and it’s the final pages that make O. Henry’s work endure.
Not all editions of this book are equal, though: the one I read while Lydia and Sarah took lessons was an adaptation. It was sweet in its own way, but when I ordered this copy, unabridged, I realized how much the other edition had left out and how dramatically Jim and Della’s story had been reduced in editing. This version contains the full text, complete with some grand words—mendicancy, parsimony, meretricious, to name a few—but P. J. Lynch’s illustrations are so rich and nuanced that I found my girls were still able to keep up with the story (with perhaps a helpful nudge here and there).
But though the language is beautiful and the illustrations, too, the prettiest piece of this story is Henry’s depiction of love. We talked for a while afterward of how nice it is to be loved the way that Della loves Jim and Jim loves Della, and how we would like to love others that way. For as often as I try to exhort my children to love one another sacrificially, it is beautiful to see loving sacrifice lived out in the lives of the Dillingham Youngs, though O. Henry does not moralize much about it. He tells us a great story with a bit of a twist, and lets us do the rest.
The Gift of the Magi
O. Henry, P. J. Lynch
(Original story: 1905; Illustrated edition: 2008)