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!

A Christmas Story

With Christmas fast approaching on the calendar, I got to thinking today about Christmas stories. As I understand it, the cable channel ABC Family is known for their 25 Days of Christmas programming block, which includes a plethora of Christmas movies, specials and supposedly, family-friendly fare for the whole family to enjoy. I’m told the Hallmark Channel also sponsors a Countdown to Christmas with holiday movies, specials and other original programs.schedule_landing

I can’t say whether or not these channels bring in lots of viewers with this seasonal programming. The other day, I heard someone describe the programs offered on the Hallmark Channel as:  girl-meets-boy, girl-meets-another-boy, first-boy-dispenses-with-second-and-gets-the-girl. I haven’t watched enough Hallmark to know. We’ve always enjoyed the Hallmark Hall of Fame productions like Sarah, Plain and Tall, Breathing Lessons, Promise. (Notice my fancy for James Garner?)

These Hall of Fame productions portray moving and entertaining characters. The stories touch your heart without seeming contrived.

Nowadays, I’ve found it difficult to find a Christmas-related story that isn’t contrived or thematic in a way that has been done so many times as to be worn-out cliché. Producers are, of course, always on the hunt for a good (hardly ever great) Christmas story because there’s a market for it to be read/adapted/ filmed/viewed/sung/marketed with peripheral products, etc. on an annual basis! (In other words, there’s gold in them thar hills!)

I delved into my memory bank to consider the stories that I’ve enjoyed through the years. (As someone born on Christmas, naturally, my own story has always fascinated me!) What I really wanted to think about, however, were the short stories of Christmases Past. A couple special ones came to mind. I’ll highlight one here.

FieldHouseBecause we were both born in the same town, I’ve always felt something of a kinship with Eugene Field. He was an American writer with imagination and tenderness for the children for whom he wrote lullabies and poetry. (I have mentioned him before, here.)

Field lived in many places but the picture to the left shows his boyhood home (built in 1829 and now a toy museum). Once a row-house, this building stands (almost by itself) close by St. Louis’s Gateway ArchBusch Stadium and the muddy Mississippi River (less than half a mile behind this building). I’ve visited Field’s home several times and am so glad they’ve saved it (thus far) from being demolished. I’m afraid, however, that few people today are even slightly familiar with an American writer named Eugene Field.

If you count yourself in that group, here’s a chance to expand your education. In my view, one of Field’s most delightful and tender stories (that I remember from childhood) is titled The First Christmas Tree. (The story runs over 1600 words, so I won’t reproduce it in this space. Please read it by clicking the web-link above.)

Field’s short story isn’t the predictable Christmas fare. It reads like a fairy tale (one of the reasons I love it so much!) It also has a Tolkien flavor to it; think about Treebeard from Middle Earth.

Unlike many of today’s short stories, there’s definitely a spiritual dimension to Field’s story. Whether the story of the Babe born in a stable resonates with you or not, I think you’ll find The First Christmas Tree avoids the trite, sugary-sweet sentimentality of many tales told today. I hope it becomes a favorite for you, just as it is one of mine.