I picked up The Gift of the Magi and Other Christmas Stories when it was free or on sale for the Kindle (as of this writing it’s 99 cents). It contains four stories:
“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
“The Heavenly Christmas Tree” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“The Story of the Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke
“Where Love Is, God Is” by Leo Tolstoy
“The Gift of the Magi”is well-known, about a young couple with not much money who give up their most precious possessions out of love to buy a Christmas present for the other. I have to confess that in earlier encounters with this story, I found it very frustrating. I know the point is that they loved each other so much they sacrificed their best, but it kind of seems like, “Give up your best and get….nothing.” 🙂 I don’t remember if I had ever read the story in its entirety before, though I was very familiar with it, but it did help to do so. One of my favorite lines is when Della tried to fix what was left of her hair after selling it:
“She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.”
I liked that she “had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things.”
And I knew the title connected their giving with the Magi, but I didn’t quite realize it fully until this paragraph:
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones…And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. 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.
So, reading the whole story in context, I enjoyed it more. Though it is still not my favorite Christmas story, there was a sweetness and winsomeness about it I hadn’t caught before.
“The Heavenly Christmas Tree” is pretty sad, about a poor, cold, hungry boy who is mistreated after his mother dies, and who then dies himself, but they are reunited around “Christ’s Christmas tree” along with all the other children and mothers who died. The mistreatment is a convicting reminder of how not to treat the poor, and the end is, of course, sweet.
I don’t think I have ever read “The Story of the Other Wise Man” before, but I was familiar with it: I may have seen it in a play or some other venue. As the title says, it is about a fourth wise man, Artaban, who was supposed to meet up with the others and take three precious jewels to the Christ Child, but missed the excursion and used one of his jewels to help an ill man. He decides to try to find the Child on his own over the next 30 years, but keeps missing Him, and uses up all his jewels helping other people in need. Thinking he has failed in his life’s quest, ultimately he finds that “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
That verse is the theme of “Where Love Is, God Is” as well. I have seen this as a play in my children’s school and heard it somewhere else with a different name for the main character and possibly a different title. It is the story of a cobbler who lost interest in life after his wife and son died, until a visitor urges him to live for God and read the Gospels to learn how. The cobbler does so, and his life changes. One day when he falls asleep while reading, he hears a voice saying, “Martin, Martin! Look out into the street to-morrow, for I shall come.” All day he looks for the Savior to come so he can welcome Him, but he only finds various other people who need help he is glad to give. In the end he finds that in welcoming them, he has welcomed Christ.
The latter two seem on the surface to equate doing good deeds with salvation rather than faith, but I think, reading between the lines, we can assume the good deeds came because of faith, not in place of it.
Though I am not likely to seek these out to reread for future Christmases, I did enjoy getting a fuller version of the stories than what I had remembered of them. And they have whetted my interest to read more Tolstoy in particular.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)