The Gift of the Magi by O Henry
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs - the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped for long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise-shell, with jewelled rims - just 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.
observations: Today is the feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to the Holy Family after the Nativity.
Della has sold her hair to buy a present for Jim, a watch chain. But as it turns out, he has sold the watch to buy the combs… (of course, her hair will grow back, while they will have to buy another watch). This is such a famous story that it doesn’t seem like a spoiler to reveal the plot. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be charmed by it, even though O Henry hammers the point home with no great subtlety:
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…. They are wisest. They are the magi.
And so the title is The Gift (singular) of the Magi, not gifts.
Jim and Della are plainly a young married couple, but there is another version floating around in which they are brother and sister, which is somehow less convincing.
O Henry was the pen-name of William Sydney Porter who had an eventful life, including a spell in prison, and whose entertaining stories (full of working people, folk wisdom, and twist endings) were very popular with magazine readers in the early 20th century.
Links on the blog: There is a Jennings story in which he and his friend Darbi have the same gift problem (a binocular-case full of biscuits!). Jo in Little Women sells her hair. David Copperfield is proud of his watch and chain.
The picture of comb, ribbons and hair is by Pisanello and is from the Codex Vallard in the Louvre.