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The Truth, Mainly - 12/22/2003

Christmas, tightwads, and O. Henry

"Christmas," I tell my wife, "is at our throats again. I'll be glad when it's over."

I don't like Christmas. I think it's a Chamber of Commerce plot. My wife says that's just another manifestation of my tight-waddedness.

"Is your tight-waddedness acting up again?" she says. "Poor baby."

"Look at this story," I say, thrusting the business section of the newspaper between her nose and her crossword puzzle.

It's about the National Retail Federations reaction to Saddam's capture. I read it aloud to my wife: "This is going to put people in better spirits," a spokesman is quoted as saying, "and we are definitely excited that this has come during the holiday season."

"We catch the arch-villain of our time," I snort, "and all the National Retail Federation has to say is that it's going to mean a definitely exciting Christmas spending splurge."

"And that," my wife says, "must really gravel your parsimonious soul."

"I wasn't brought up that way," I say. "Our family was poor but proud. We'd make Christmas presents out of used tomato soup cans and scraps of worn-out dish towels. We'd have gruel for Christmas dinner, then take turns pulling the one-horse sleigh because we couldn't afford the horse."

"You don't even know what gruel is," she says. "You've been making up your poverty ever since the kids asked for a Christmas tree in 1963."

"Well," I say, "I'll tell you this: no one in my family ever got trampled at Wal-Mart trying to buy whatever people are trampling each other for this week."

She rolls her eyes.

"You know what you are?" she says. "You're a tight-wadded old grump. Didn't you ever read 'The Christmas Carol,' Ebenezer?"

"My name's not Ebenezer," I say. "And a much better piece is 'The Gift of the Magi' by O. Henry. It's my kind of Christmas story."

Here I interrupt our little domestic discussion to remind you, dear reader, of the story's plot.

It's about a poor newly-wed couple named Jim and Della. They exist on $20 a week. It's the first decade of the 20th century.

Jim's only possession of value is an heirloom gold watch that once belonged to his grandfather. Della's only possession of value is her head of beautiful hair which "fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her."

It's December 24, and Della has $1.87 to spend on a gift for Jim. In a shop window, she sees a platinum watch chain "even worthy of The Watch." But it costs $21. So she sells her knee-length hair to a wig-maker for $20, buys the platinum watch chain, and has 87 cents left over.

When Jim comes home, Della presents him with her gift of great price. He looks at her with a "peculiar expression" on his face—and it's not only because she no longer has her spectacular head of hair.

The Truth, Mainly


It's also because he has sold the gold watch so that he can buy Della a set of "beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair."

Did you follow that? Jim sold the watch to buy the combs for the hair Della sold to buy the watch chain for the watch Jim sold. When all that comes to light, they both put away their now useless Christmas gifts and get on with the business of everyday life. Della puts supper on to cook.

"And that story," I tell my wife, "teaches us that it's foolish to spend a lot of money on Christmas presents."

"Wait a minute," she says. "I've read that story too, and you're leaving out what O. Henry says at the end."

She whips O. Henry's collected works out of her knitting basket and begins reading from the final paragraph of the story:

"The magi, as you know, were wise men. . .who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children…who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasure of their house."

"See?" I say. "See how O. Henry makes his point about the foolishness of spending lots of money on Christmas presents?"

"But look at the end," she says. "You have to read all the way to the end, Mr. English Professor. That's where the good stuff is: 'But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that…of all who give and receive gifts…[Jim and Della] are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."

"And what, Miss Smarty Pants," I say, "might he mean by that?"

"Think on it, Buddy Boy," she says. "Think on it. And Happy Winter Solstice. The sun's coming back and spring's on its way. And it's all free."

"Free?" I say. "Really?"


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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