12.16.2008

O. Henry's Christmas Stories of New York's Working Poor

The writer William Sydney Porter, known as O. Henry, wrote several Christmas tales in addition to "The Gift of the Magi." A couple of the stories are set in rural areas of Texas and the American West, as Porter lived and worked on ranches as a young man. Porter was a banker in Austin, Texas until his conviction on embezzlement charges, changing his name to O. Henry only after he was set free from the Ohio penitentiary. Some speculate that he was inspired to choose his new pen name from the place of his incarceration. Like "The Gift of the Magi," his New York Christmas stories often emphasize the bittersweet meaning of the season among the working poor, and his best character portraits are those of the down and out.

Reading passages from O. Henry's Christmas stories, published a hundred years ago, can ring uncomfortably true today:
The Best Short Stories of O. Henry (Modern Library)Everywhere the spirit of Christmas was diffusing itself. The banks were refusing loans, the pawn-brokers had doubled their gang of helpers, people bumped your shins on the streets with red sleds, Thomas and Jeremiah bubbled before you on the bars while you waited on one foot, holly-wreaths of hospitality were hung in windows of the stores, they who had 'em were getting their furs. You hardly knew which was the best bet in balls--three, high, moth, or snow.
- O. Henry, "Compliments of the Season"

But, I'll tell you to what kind of a mortal Christmas seems to be only the day before the twenty-sixth day of December. It's the chap in the big city earning sixteen dollars a week, with no friends and few acquaintances, who finds himself with only fifty cents in his pocket on Christmas eve. He can't accept charity; he can't borrow; he knows no one who would invite him to dinner. I have a fancy that when the shepherds left their flocks to follow the star of Bethlehem there was a bandy-legged young fellow among them who was just learning the sheep business. So they said to him, "Bobby, we're going to investigate this star route and see what's in it. If it should turn out to be the first Christmas day we don't want to miss it. And, as you are not a wise man, and as you couldn't possibly purchase a present to take along, suppose you stay behind and mind the sheep.
- O. Henry, "An Unfinished Christmas Story"

Image: detail of the side of Pete's Tavern, 18th and Irving Place, where O. Henry wrote "The Gift of the Magi." See related posts on O. Henry.

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