"The Gift of the Magi" is a famous short story by the American author William Sydney Porter who wrote under the pseudonym of O. Henry. It was first published as "Gifts of the Magi" in The New York Sunday World on Dec 10, 1905. It was subsequently published as "The Gift of the Magi" in the 1906 anthology The Four Million.
The story concerns a poor young couple who struggles to provide a magical Christmas experience for one another despite their poverty. James "Jim" Dillingham Young and his wife, Della, live in a small flat. Each has one high-quality possession to their names: James has a beautiful gold watch which belonged to both his father and grandfather, and Della has long, beautiful hair. On Christmas Eve, Della only has $1.87, so she decides to cut off her hair and sell it for $20. She finds a platinum fob chain for Jim which costs her $21. Excited at finding the perfect present, she rushes home to prepare dinner. Her excitement turns into dismay, however, when she sees herself in the mirror. As she hears Jim's footsteps come up the stairs, she prays he will still find her attractive.
"The Gift of the Magi" is the most popular work by O. Henry. A prototypical short story with a famous ironic twist ending, it is frequently taught in schools. Its theme of selfless love and the Christmas setting have also made it a holiday favorite, and the story has been adapted to other media many times. "The Gift of the Magi" is also widely referenced and parodied in popular culture.
It is the day before Christmas, and Della has only one dollar and eighty-seven cents to spend on a gift for her husband Jim. After months of haggling and saving every penny she could in the hope of buying something nice for him, all Della can do now is cry.
Della and her husband, James Dillingham Young, live in a cheap furnished flat. Times were better when Jim made $30 per week, but his income has shrunk to $20 per week and the flat alone costs $8 a week. Della looks out the window at the gray day depressed. Then suddenly an idea comes to her. She stands in front of the mirror and lets down her long hair. Della’s hair is her only prized possession. It falls below her knees in a beautiful brown cascade.
Della puts on her jacket and goes out to a shop advertising "Hair Goods of All Kinds." The Madame offers Della twenty dollars for her beautiful hair. When the transaction is done, Della goes shopping in search of the perfect gift. After two hours, she finally finds it – a platinum fob chain. Jim's only valued possession is a gold pocket watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The simple, tasteful chain, Della thinks, fits Jim perfectly and is worthy of the treasured heirloom watch. Della happily pays twenty-one dollars for the chain and hurries home.
Back at home, reality sets in and Della takes out her curling irons to repair the damage. After forty minutes of hard work, she looks at herself in the mirror in dismay. With the tight small curls, she looks like a schoolboy or a chorus girl. She makes coffee and gets set to cook dinner. As she hears Jim's footsteps come up the stairs, she whispers "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."
Jim opens the door, steps in, and stops. He stares at Della with a strange expression on his face. Della can see it is not anger or disapproval, but she cannot read the expression. Terrified, she begs him not to look at her like that. She then explains how she sold her hair to buy him a gift. She tries to talk to him, but Jim appears to be in a daze. He asks "You've cut off your hair?" then looks around the room as if he is searching for the missing hair. Della tells him again that she sold it and assures him she is still the same person without the hair. She tells him how much she loves him then asks if she should start cooking.
The question finally brings Jim out of his trance. He suddenly embraces Della. Then he takes out a package. He reassures her that no haircut can make him like her any less, then tells her to unwrap the package.
Della opens the package and screams in joy. Then quickly joy turns into despair and she begins to cry hysterically. Jim had bought for her the set of expensive decorative hair combs she had long admired in a shop window. The beautiful tortoiseshell combs with jeweled rims would have been the perfect accessories for Della's glossy long hair. She had yearned over them, and now that they are hers, her beautiful tresses are gone.
Jim does his best to comfort Della. When she has finally calmed down, Della hugs the combs. She looks up at her husband with a smile and says "My hair grows so fast, Jim!" Then she suddenly leaps up, remembering her beautiful gift for Jim. She holds up the chain eagerly and asks for his watch so she can see how the chain looks on it.
Jim sits down and leans back on the couch. He smiles and suggests they put away their presents for a while because they are too nice to use at the moment – then he reveals that he had to sell his watch in order to afford her present.
The narrator closes the story by comparing the couple's sacrifices to the gifts of the Biblical Magi, also referred to as the Three Wise Men. The Magi, according to Christian tradition, brought valuable gifts to Baby Jesus. Although Della and Jim have inadvertently and "most unwisely" sacrificed their treasures to buy gifts that the other can no longer use, the gesture only affirms their love for each other. The narrator declares that they, and those like them, are wisest of all who give and receive gifts – and therefore, "They are the magi."
The 1909 D.W. Griffith silent short film The Sacrifice is an adaptation of "The Gift of the Magi." Another silent film adaptation of the story, The Gift of the Magi (1917), is now believed lost.
"The Gift of the Magi" is the fifth and last short story by O. Henry dramatized for the 1952 American anthology film O. Henry's Full House. The segment stars Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger. Many countries have produced movies based on or inspired by the story, including Russia, Greece, and India.
The story was made into two American television musicals; first by CBS in 1958 starring Sally Ann Howes and Gordon McRae, then by NBC in 1978 with Debbie Boone and John Rubinstein.
The Gift of Love, a 1978 ABC television film, is a loose adaptation of the story. The Hallmark Channel original movie Gift of the Magi, which aired on December 16, 2010 in the United States, is a modernized version of the story.
Many television series have featured episodes inspired by "The Gift of the Magi," from The Honeymooners to Rugrats and The Simpsons.
There have been many radio dramatizations of "The Gift of the Magi." The story has also been adapted for the stage as plays, musicals, and an opera.
- Sound files of public domain audiobooks of "The Gift of the Magi" from LibriVox:
- ↑ Other segments in the film O. Henry's Full House are based on "The Cop and the Anthem", "The Clarion Call", "The Last Leaf", and "The Ransom of Red Chief".