O Henry’s Classic Christmas Tale: The Gift of the Magi

“The magi, as you know, were wise men — wonderfully wise men — who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.”

Photo by Batang Latagaw on Unsplash

Tonight it’s Christmas Eve, the night before Christmas. It’s also a season of traditions. Finding and decorating the Christmas tree, wrapping presents, spending time with family — these are all part of the experience of Christmas for many. And in each home there may be found additional traditions such as kissing under the mistletoe or leaving hot chocolate and cookies for Santa.

One of the traditions in our home has been watching A Christmas Carol each year. It began when the kids were young. It was on television at that time and we recorded it on our VHS videotape machine. This version featured George C Scott in the role of Scrooge.

For years we watched that tape till one year our grown children were in California and we purchased the DVD so we could watch it there in the hotel room we were staying.

Another tradition amongst Christians is the creche, a small (or large when outdoors) presentation of the Nativity scene featuring the baby Jesus in a manger, surrounded by his mother Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, animals and the three kings, sometimes called the three wise men or Magi, from the East.

All this to say that even though churches sing “We Three Kings” at this time of year, it is almost a certainty that these men were not present that first night when shepherds were visited by angels and told of the holy birth. And they probably weren’t even kings.

The story is found in Matthew 2 where it states that after Jesus was born, Magi came to Jerusalem from the East asking King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”

To some this might seem a curious thing because the birth took place in Bethlehem. But when you think about it, these were foreign dignitaries of sorts, and they assumed (incorrectly) that the way to find the newborn king was to go through the proper political channels.

If you recall the Old Testament story of Naaman, a similar incident occurs. Naaman, commander of the Syrian armies, acquired leprosy and was devastated. His wife’s young cleaning lady said that there was a God in Israel that could heal him.* He, too, followed proper political channels and went first to the king asking for help. The king was Ahab, who thought this move was a ploy by the powerful Syrian commander to pick a fight and wipe Israel off the map. (You can read the rest of the story in II Kings 5.)

In the story of the Magi, King Herod was similarly disturbed, not by the Magi in this case, but in the threat to his reign by this newly born purported heir to the throne, according to the Scriptures. Privately and with devious intent, he shared that according to the prophet Micah the birth of this king was to have been in Bethlehem. He said, “Go find him and then report back to me.”

They went, but did not report back, having been warned in a dream to not do so. When Herod discovered he’d been tricked, that they had gone home, he ordered that all boys two years old and under be killed. Our actions reveal our hearts.

The fact that Herod had all boys up to age two slaughtered seems to suggest that the Magi arrived sometime after the birth announcement to the shepherds. It may have been even a year later and Herod simply chose two years as the cutoff in order to be sure it was settled. God, however, had already given Joseph a heads up, also in a dream, and the family had moved to Egypt for a while, out of harm’s way.

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Photo by the author.

Wikipedia has this to say about the word Magi: The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος (magos), as used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew (in the plural: μάγοι, magoi). Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e., the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born (see Yasna 33.7: “ýâ sruyê parê magâunô” = “so I can be heard beyond Magi”). The term refers to the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science.

When I lived in Puerto Rico, the holiday season stretched from December 25 (the day of Messiah’s birth) to January 6, designated Three Kings Day, as if there were indeed a separation of time, though not that much later.

The Matthew account also says nothing about the number of Magi. We apparently say three only because the gifts they brought were three in number — gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The title ties it to the Christmas season. Sentimental and sweet, it has a good message about sacrificial giving. Here’s the beginning, with a link to the rest of the story below.

The Gift of the Magi

ONE DOLLAR AND EIGHTY-SEVEN CENTS. That was all. She had put it aside, one cent and then another and then another, in her careful buying of meat and other food. Della counted it three times. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was nothing to do but fall on the bed and cry. So Della did it.

While the lady of the home is slowly growing quieter, we can look at the home. Furnished rooms at a cost of $8 a week. There is little more to say about it. In the hall below was a letter-box too small to hold a letter. There was an electric bell, but it could not make a sound. Also there was a name beside the door: “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

When the name was placed there, Mr. James Dillingham Young was being paid $30 a week. Now, when he was being paid only $20 a week, the name seemed too long and important. It should perhaps have been “Mr. James D. Young.” But when Mr. James Dillingham Young entered the furnished rooms, his name became very short indeed. Mrs. James Dillingham Young put her arms warmly about him and called him “Jim.” You have already met her. She is Della.

Della finished her crying and cleaned the marks of it from her face. She stood by the window and looked out with no interest. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a gift. She had put aside as much as she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week is not much. Everything had cost more than she had expected. It always happened like that.

Only $ 1.87 to buy a gift for Jim. Her Jim.

To finish, visit The Gift of the Magi.

Related Link

Here is an illuminating passage pertaining to the Magi from Chapter 8 of Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.

* Proof that you do not need to be in politics you influence the fate of nations

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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