Sixty Pennies at Christmas

Today, I conducted a scientific survey … that is, I queried my Beloved as to whether there were any Christmas stories (other than the birth of Christ) he could remember being especially dear to him. Of course, he thought for a bit.bell01 I realized it would be a challenge for him. He loves Christmas (probably not as much as I do) but he’s a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, not a head-in-the-clouds sort like me.

At first, he recalled a school assignment; the teacher had instructed everyone in the class to write a paper on the subject The Two Christmases. What my Beloved remembers is others in the class connected the idea to (1) religious and (2) secular Christmas while he thought of Christmas (1) in America and Christmas celebrated in (2) another country, both ideas legitimately two Christmases. Still, he remembers feeling like the odd man out because his paper didn’t conform with the papers of his classmates. How typical (all these years later) that memories tend to summon the painful and unpleasant incidents from childhood!

We talked some more, especially because I was pretty sure his education experience paralleled mine. Yes, we’d gone to school in two different states, but having graduated from high school only a year later than he, I’ve always suspected we’d even read some of the same textbooks.

Finally, he brought up a story … I didn’t want to prompt him, seed his recall with suggestions that weren’t entirely his own. He said, “There was this one story. There’s a guy. I can’t remember the name of the story, but I think it might have been written by O. Henry.”

I waited for more.

“This guy wants to buy his wife a Christmas gift. But they’re dirt poor. He buys her something for her hair.”

Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

The Gift of the Magi was written by O. Henry, and although my survey was far from “scientific” (as I jokingly claimed above), this short story is (in my view) one of the all-time Christmas classics.

The story is about a guy. It’s also about a girl. Like many young couples, these two are struggling to make ends meet. But it’s Christmas Eve and each wants to give a gift − no matter how small − to express love for the other. Please click the web-link above to read the entire short story there … because I don’t want to hazard any spoilers.

O. Henry was a pen name. The author, William Sydney Porter, was a terrific writer whose stock in trade included witty, well-told tales portraying salt-of-the-earth characters and unexpected plot twists.

Additionally, what I enjoy about O. Henry stories is his vocabulary. When I read, I appreciate being challenged; just for clarity’s sake, force me to grab a dictionary every once in a while!

O. Henry doesn’t write with a dumbed-down style, but instead chooses precise diction. He also succeeds in minding the Strunk & White rule − omit needless words. (For elaboration of this subject, please see my post here.) His sentences are spare but rich with perfect shading and universal images.pennies

Further, I’m also a fan of O. Henry’s surprise turns of plot. Few things in a short story are worse than a predictable ending; speaking for myself, when I sense an ending beforehand, anticipation succumbs to letdown and even worse, boredom. Yuck!

One of the best aspects of The Gift of the Magi itself is this story (on the face of it) isn’t overtly religious. It can be enjoyed even by people who scorn the religious reason for the season. (As a person of faith, I don’t mind that. Even acknowledging Christmas as a time to celebrate my Savior, the Christ-child, I don’t have a beef with others who choose to bypass this central component of the holy-day … holiday. It’s their choice.)

I say the story isn’t overtly religious. What Jim and Della (the young couple) express, however, is a selflessness that at its core illuminates the message of Christmas. Jim is more concerned about … oops, I said there’d be no spoilers and I must be true to my word! Suffice to say, both characters demonstrate love in action.

If I have one quibble about this short story, it occurs in the first paragraph. Della contemplates her available funds. The author explains she has “One dollar and eighty-seven cents … sixty cents of it” in pennies.

No matter how I figure it, Della had to have more or less than sixty pennies! For O. Henry, in the progress of the story, this counting error has no consequence (may even go unnoticed by many readers).

Nevertheless, William Sydney Porter was once charged for embezzling bank funds that some sources suggest may rather have resulted from “technical mismanagement.” I would pose another possible explanation:  Porter had sucky math skills!

But he was a masterful wordsmith and I’m so glad he stuck with the writing!

2 thoughts on “Sixty Pennies at Christmas

  1. I haven’t read that story in ages, but I certainly remember it and it’s definitely a great one. I don’t remember noticing the calculation error though. Methinks I, too, have sucky math skills!

    1. I thought the same thing when I last reread the story, Debbie! Hadn’t noticed the faulty calculation previously, so put me in the sucky math skills category as well!

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