24 December 2008

The Magi

Rooting around in my parents' basement, I came across my collection of beloved childhood picture books. I've kept these books with me for many years, usually displayed on the top of a bookcase on their own--necessitated by their size, but also because they are lovely to look at. But when I moved to Europe they stayed, with most of my books, in their boxes in the Vermont basement. It makes me sad to see them languishing here.

One of my favorites is a 1982 edition of O. Henri's The Gift of the Magi, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. It's an odd, long size, all the better to fit Zwerger's swooping portraits of Della's hair and Jim's lanky slouch. My parents gave it to me when I was four years old.

Rereading it today, on Christmas Eve--the day the story takes place and thus, the perfect day to read it--I was struck by a few things. Of course I loved the story as a romantic little girl, but now I notice just how this tidily symmetric story is full of the symbolic accoutrements of gender (her glorious hair, his imposing watch), and language like this: "a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat."

But the nugget of the story is a sweet and simple Christmas message: the joy of gift-giving and the beauty of sacrifice for love. Both Jim and Della sell their most beloved possession in order to buy a luxurious gift for the other, gifts that were to have accentuated those now-gone treasures. In the end it is the giving that is important, for their real treasures are one another.

The story ends, "But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."

Merry Christmas Eve!

No comments: