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A Walk for a New York Christmas: Part III. O. Henry and "The Gift of the Magi"

"One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all."

Sometime in 1905, in Pete's Tavern on the corner of Irving Place and E. 18th, short story writer O. Henry sat in his favorite booth, allegedly the second from the front, and quickly wrote "The Gift of the Magi, " a story we can assume, in contrast to Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," to be his own intellectual property. The holiday tale wasn't his first Christmas story - "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking" in the December 1899 issue of McClure's Magazine may claim that honor, nor was it a great work of literature, but the story, published originally in The New York World, gained a sentimental following.

In contrast to the warm and affluent coziness depicted in Clement Clarke Moore's poem of the 1820s, with its traditional nuclear family, a nice house, carefully-hung stockings, and a lawn with new fallen snow, etc., "The Gift of the Magi," like many of O. Henry's stories, suggests the weary masses of New York in the early 1900s. The spirit and milieu of the Bowery is more apparent than the reserved refinement of a Chelsea mansion.

By the time he arrived in New York in 1902, the writer O. Henry, born William Sydney Porter (September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910), was trying to start over. A North Carolinian by birth and a long-time Texas resident, he was a fresh ex-con, having been locked up in a prison in Ohio from 1898-1901 on charges he embezzled a bank in Austin, Texas while an employee. The imprisonment may have been unwarranted, as he wasn't good with money. In order to support his daughter, Margaret, he started penning his short stories while in jail, and a friend would send them off to publishers. This is how his first Christmas story came to McClure's Magazine. When he got out of prison he changed his name to O. Henry, and in 1902 he moved to New York, the city he would call "Baghdad-on-the-Subway."

Most know his famous tale. It's Christmas Eve. A poor married couple live in a gritty apartment, and it's clear hard times have come. The husband, James, has suffered a recent pay cut, and his wife, Della, frets over how to buy him something nice for Christmas. She walks down the street and sells her beautiful long hair, her source of pride, then shops for a present. She buys the perfect gift, a fob for her husband's prized watch, blowing almost all her money. After she comes home and fixes and curls her short hair, James arrives home only to go into great shock at the sight of his wife. We know what happens next, right? Spoiler alert! O. Henry ending! He's sold his watch to buy her beautiful and expensive combs for her hair, and now he has received a gift with no practical purpose. Ahhh, but 'tis the sacrifice for a greater gift of love that makes this spirit count.

From December 1903 to January 1906 O. Henry wrote for The New York World, submitting a story per week, and also writing for magazines. He penned six hundred stories while he was alive, and these stories were packaged into ten published collections. He lived in several different New York apartments, including the Hotel Chelsea, a place in Grove Court, 47 W. 24th St., and 55 Irving Place. He still couldn't keep count of money, and he drank too much. At the time he wrote "The Gift of the Magi," he was basically in a slow-motion train wreck, five years away from dying of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 47, but he knew throughout his life how to convey the spirit of Christmas.

"The poorer you are the more Christmas does for you."
- O. Henry, An Unfinished Christmas Story

Image: Pete's Tavern, corner of Irving Place and E. 18th St. December 2008. My telling of these New York holiday literary tales is far from done. In upcoming posts - a walk in contemporary Irving Place, a look at other O. Henry Christmas tales, and O. Henry's thoughts on Fourth Avenue.

Related Posts:

A Walk for a New York Christmas: From Clement Clarke Moore's Chelsea to O. Henry's Irving Place (Introduction)

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