Tuesday 20 December 2011

A Long Mane & A Watch Chain

"One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was 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. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas."

In 1905, New York City's population had reached over 4 million.  Although the metropolis had no Empire State Building, its skyline was starting to sprout skyscrapers like the Whitehall Building at 20 stories and the Singer Building at 40 stories.  Although New Yorkers still rode streetcars, they did have the option of riding on the brand new subway that had opened the year before.  Their mayor was George B. McClellan and their president, Theodore Roosevelt, one of their native sons. 

Another native son was William Sydney Porter, a writer who used to like to frequent Pete's Tavern in Manhattan's Flatiron District.  In 1905, sitting in one of the establishment's dimly-lit booths and watching patrons drink at the rosewood bar, Mr. Porter got out his pen and wrote a romance about a young couple living in a modest flat, struggling to make ends meet. 

The wife, Della, desperately wanted to buy her new husband a Christmas gift, but she had only $1.87 to her name.  Her most prized possession was her hair which cascaded down her back to just below her knees.  Often she and her husband would stroll down Broadway Street and admire the beautiful hair combs in a certain shop window.  Della decided to sell her hair and used the $20 she earned to purchase a platinum chain for her husband's watch.  Back at her flat she looked with consternation at herself in the mirror, worried that she resembled a "Coney Island chorus girl".

In the meantime, Della's husband, Jim visited the Broadway Street shop and purchased the beautiful combs his wife had admired so often, by selling his most prized possession, his grandfather's pocket watch.  He rushed home to their apartment to present his wife with the Christmas gift, only to find that she had sold her mane of hair.  Worried that her husband wouldn't love her anymore, her worries quickly melted away at his response:  "He enfolded his Della." 

Sitting in the booth at Pete's Tavern, William Sydney Porter penned his last line "And they are the magi" pointing out that it was the wisemen, or magi, who invented the art of gift-giving at Christmas when they brought presents for baby Jesus in the manger.  And like the wisemen, the young couple in his story selflessly sacrificed their greatest treasures.  The New York author titled his work "The Gift of the Magi" and he published it under the nom de plume O. Henry.  It first appeared in the New York Sunday World on December 10, 1905 and later was printed in an anthology of short stories by the author.

Drawing courtesy www.familychristmasonline.com.

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