The Gifts of Magi

Posted by Jill Carattini on January 5, 2018

I was sold on the genre of tragedy as a child at Christmastime, long before I knew anything about genres or tragedies. Jim Dillingham Young and his wife Della are the subjects of The Gift of the Magi, a short story written by O. Henry in 1906. Struggling to make ends meet in their one room apartment, Jim and Della have but two prized possessions between them: for Jim, a pocket watch given to him by his father, and for Della, her long, beautiful hair, of which it is said that even the queen of Sheba would be envious. When Christmas comes, Jim and Della have nothing to scrape together to buy even a simple gift for the other. Yet, longing to give something meaningful out of great love, each, unbeknownst to the other, sacrifices the greatest treasure of the house; Della sells her hair to buy her husband a silver chain for his beloved pocket watch, and Jim his pocket watch to buy Della pearl combs for her beautiful hair. Thus unfolds The Gift of the Magi and “the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days,” writes O. Henry, “let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”(1)

Some short stories tell giant lessons. For me, this was one of them. In the mind of a child, Jim and Della acted out the ultimate display of love, the kind of love that breaks your heart in a way that somehow makes it feel more whole. For the sake of the other, they released willingly from their hands the very thing they wanted to hold onto the tightest. Could I do that? I wondered. And even as I asked, I saw clearly that there were two questions in the one uttered. Could I give up the thing I want most to hold onto? But also, and maybe even more plaguing, Could I love someone like that? We learn the art of self-protection at a young age, and even then I was childishly aware of it. But sacrificial love, the sacrificial giving of oneself, even when it takes a tragic or ironic turn, knocks at every wall of self-preservation with an invitation: it is terrifying but also pregnant with possibility, an invitation to the destruction of walls, but also to homecoming and to new rooms.

Andrea Mantegna, The Adoration of the Magi, XV-XVI cent.

In the Christian account of Christmas, the sacrificial birth of Christ into the world among us brings about some of the loudest knocking ever known to human hearts. The gift of a Son into hands that would harm him presents a most sacrificial gift and a striking invitation to sacrifice everything to have it. As C.S. Lewis writes:

“The Christian way is different: harder and easier. Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you—No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down.  Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent, as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.'”(2)

To a groaning world that may not in the least suspect it is groaning for a savior, Christ comes as he came to Mary herself, wanting to stretch us physically, emotionally, and socially, taking away everything: the dark corners of our souls, even all we might have thought good or godly of ourselves—our good names, our good futures, our innocence. Mary certainly had reasons to say “No” to the devastating invitation that came to her by way of terrifying angel. For a young peasant girl, she was facing an assuring future: a husband to wed, a home to create, a good reputation. Saying “Yes” to God and to the words of the angel Gabriel was to put all of this on the line, everything she had and might have once clung to. Could you do the equivalent? Could you release security, love, reputation, or even your youth from your own determined grasp? Mary’s risk was no less difficult than the most sacrificial act you could imagine of your own life. Saying “Yes” to the Christ child and to the knocking of his love will surely bring down the houses we have built, even the rooms that house the things we hold onto most fiercely.

Yet this is precisely the invitation the story of Christ leaves before us like a gift for this new year: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”(3) He comes with the annunciation of great sacrifice and pregnant impossibilities, and he curiously assures us not to be afraid. Yet where meek and foolish souls give everything to receive him, they still find themselves the wisest.


Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) O. Henry, 100 Selected Stories (London: Wordsworth, 1995), 5.
(2) C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian (New York: Macmillan, 1984), 179.
(3) Isaiah 9:6.