“The Gift of the Magi”

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Henry David Thoreau said that “it is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.”  How ironic, then, that in the Season of Consumerism, my favorite Christmas short story is one that emphasizes the importance of personal sacrifice, and not material possessions, as Christmas’s most important theme.

In “The Gift of the Magi” ‘s first line, the reader discovers a conflict: it’s just before Christmas, and Della has “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all” (Henry 1)…and she still has not bought her husband a Christmas present.  The two are poor, and, save for a few prized possessions, have no luxuries in their lives.  “The Gift of the Magi” is about the spirit of giving and sacrifice–what Della sacrifices to give her husband, Jim, for Christmas, and surprisingly, what he sacrifices for Della as well.

I first read O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” in eighth grade, and have taught it previously to ninth graders, as it can be found in most ninth grade literature textbooks.  This story can easily be taught the last day before winter break (when students’ blood sugar levels would make any Keebler elf envious), and is great for teaching plot, characterization, and especially irony.

FYI…The title derives itself from the Biblical magi, who were the three astrologers from the east who noticed a star when Jesus was born, and followed it until they reached Him.  They presented Him with gifts, three of which are specified in the Bible: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2.1-11 New World Translation).  There are many theories as to what the three gifts may have symbolized, as well as whether or not the magi were actually harmful to Jesus (they paid obeisance to Him, but also inadvertently tipped off Herod that He was alive).  These details are not, however, important to one’s understanding of O. Henry’s short story.

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