“The Gift of the Magi” remains one of the most influential short stories of author O. Henry’s career—and the history of American literature altogether. First published in 1905 in the New York Sunday World, the quintessential Christmas tale explores the power of generosity, self-sacrifice, and gift-giving.
Set on Christmas Eve, the story begins with Della, who has saved $1.87 after months of parsimony to buy her husband, Jim, a Christmas peasant. She sells her most treasured belonging, her gorgeous, knee-length hair, to procure a fob chain for Jim’s beloved gold watch. Later, Jim reveals that he made a comparable sacrifice: he sold the watch to buy Della an expensive set of hair combs. Della and Jim's mutual sacrifices thus render each other’s gifts useless, and this surprising, ironic twist is emblematic of O. Henry’s recognizable, indelible style.
The story’s poor characters, witty narrator, sentimental and humorous tone, and realistic setting are also indicative of O. Henry’s oeuvre. O. Henry—the pen name for William Sydney Porter—was one of the most widely-known living writers in the early 20th century, and while his popularity has waned over the years, “The Gift of the Magi” has permeated the entertainment world for decades. The story has been adapted in numerous musical and film productions, and dozens of television shows—from Sesame Street to Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons—have parodied, recycled, or paid homage to the story’s plot. The abiding presence of “The Gift of the Magi” in popular culture indicates the timeless, universal appeal of its seasonal, warmhearted affirmation of unselfish love.