An actor named Denis Brennan, with a big deep chocolaty voice, would read a short story. Big deal, I hear you say. For Godsake, I further hear you say, what the hell is wrong with this madwoman?
We’re all broke, we’re going off the Government (according to the poll in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post) because of the Budget they’ve inflicted on us, we’re under pressure to create some kind of a Christmas out of nothing, our kids are going to be disappointed for the first time ever, and she’s warbling on about a short story? Puhlease…
Stick with me, though. Stick with me. Because the thing about this particular short story is that it’s about precisely our current situation, just backdated a little.
It seemed relevant, 30 years back, and it’s now relevant all over again, because it’s about new poverty. It’s about a young married couple living in a furnished flat in New York around 1900, whose income has gone down by a third in the previous year.
Familiar? It’s unclear why the two of them are living on reduced money. All we know is that it’s Christmas Eve, that Jim has gone out to work as he does every day, and that Della, his wife, is counting the cash she’s saved over the previous months in order to be able to give him a present the following day.
Like many people in Ireland this Christmas, the sums don’t add up for Della. She has one dollar and 87 cents.
“One dollar and eighty seven cents, most of it in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied…”
Della knows that this amount simply isn’t going to cut it. She knows that a recount of the pathetic amount is going to come up with the same pathetic total. She doesn’t have the option her modern equivalent would have, of maxing out the credit card and postponing the payment until January or February. This, remember, is long before credit cards. Della is living a cash life and the amount of cash she has is frankly inadequate to her situation, no matter which way she looks at the towers of tiny coins lined up on the table in front of her.
“There was clearly nothing to do,” wrote O Henry, the author of the story, “but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it.”
When she recovered, she spent some time at the window, looking out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. Then, suddenly, she had an idea. In front of the narrow old mirror in the flat, she undid her hair. Her long, long auburn hair. Her hair that reached her knees. Her hair that, along with her husband Jim’s pocket watch, was one of two items in which the young married couple took an inordinate pride.
Jim’s pocket watch had been handed on from his father and had once been owned by his grandfather. Not much, perhaps, a watch and a magnificent fall of hair, but this was all they had to be proud of, so they were very proud of them.
Della tied her hair back up, put on a hat and a jacket, and went out into the snowy streets of her city. She knew where she was going. She’d observed the sign, “Madame Sofronie. Hair Goods of all Kinds.” She had registered the implicit possibilities. Just as today, hairdressing emporia advertise wigs and extensions made from real human hair, back then, a good swatch of long hair could be made into something some other woman would wear and pay for.
Della found the place and went up the stairs to the room where the proprietor, a vast pasty woman, told her the long brown hair was worth twenty bucks.
“Give it to me quick,” said Della.
Shorn and clutching her twenty bucks, she searched the stores until she found the right gift for Jim.
“It was a platinum fob chain, simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance along and not by meretricious ornamentation — as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value — the description applied to both.”
It cost 21 dollars. The transaction left her with 87 cents rattling in her pocket as she rushed home through the snow to get out a curling tongs to try to make her newly short hair look acceptable.
When her 22-year-old husband arrived, when he stepped in and closed the door, when he turned and saw her with her head covered in tiny, close-lying curls, he stopped dead.
“His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her.
“It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for.”
She rushed to him with explanations of how she couldn’t have lived through Christmas without buying him a present and that she sold her hair and that it would grow back quickly.
Even though what she had done was pretty immediately obvious, Jim seemed to have extraordinary and disproportionate problems coming to terms with it. He hugged her for a long, silent time before stepping back and tossing a package onto the kitchen table.
DELLA opened the package to discover the set of combs, side and back, she’d lusted after for months in a Broadway shop window.
“Beautiful combs, pure tortoiseshell, with jewelled rims — jut the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.”
Then she remembered the fob chain, unwrapped and ready to show Jim, and demanded the precious watch so she could fit the chain to it.
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em awhile. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs.”
O Henry ends the short story (The Gift of the Maji, which has never gone out of print since he first wrote it) by pointing out a sometimes forgotten reality, which is that, while the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to the baby in the manger were the ones who invented Christmas gift-giving, it’s the generous impoverished who make that tradition come alive, every Christmas. They are the Maji.