Della Young is a devoted young married woman. Christmas Eve finds her in possession of a meager one dollar and eighty-seven cents, the sum total of her savings, with which she wants to buy a gift for her husband, Jim. A recent cut in the family income, from an ample thirty dollars a week to a stingy twenty dollars a week, has turned Della’s frugality into parsimony. Although she lives in an eight-dollar-a-week flat and her general surroundings, even by the greatest stretch of the imagination, do not meet the standards of genteel poverty, Della determines that she cannot live through Christmas without giving Jim a tangible reminder of the season.
Distraught, she clutches the one dollar and eighty-seven cents in her hand as she moves discontentedly about her tiny home. Suddenly, catching a glance of herself in the cheap pier glass mirror, a maneuver possible only for the slender and agile viewer, the perfect solution suggests itself. Whirling about with happiness, she lets down her long, beautiful hair. It is like brown sable and falls in caressing folds to below her knees. After a moment’s self-admiration, and another half-moment’s reservation, during which time a tear streaks down her face, she resolutely puts on her old hat and jacket and leaves the flat.
Della’s quick steps take her to the shop of Madame Sofronie, an establishment that trades in hair goods of all kinds. Entering quickly, lest her nerve desert her, she offers to sell her hair. Madame Sofronie surveys the luxuriant tresses, unceremoniously slices them off, and hands Della twenty dollars. For the next two hours, Della feels herself in paradise, temporarily luxuriating in the knowledge that she can buy anything she wants. She decides on a watch fob for Jim’s beautiful old watch. If there are two treasures in the world of which James and Della Dillingham Young are inordinately and justly proud, they are her hair (lately and gladly sacrificed) and Jim’s revered gold watch, handed down to him by his grandfather.
She finally sees exactly what she wants, a platinum watch fob that costs twenty-one dollars. She excitedly anticipates Jim’s reaction when he sees a proper chain for his watch. Until now, he has been using an old leather strap, which, despite the watch’s elegance, has forced him to look at the time surreptitiously.
Arriving back at the flat, breathless but triumphant, Della remembers her newly bobbed appearance. She reaches for the curling irons and soon a mass of close-cropped curls adorns her shorn head. She stares at herself anxiously in the mirror, hoping that her husband will still love her. As is her usual custom, she prepares dinner for the always punctual Jim and sits down to await his arrival. The precious gift is tightly clutched in her hand. She mutters an imprecation to God so that Jim will think she is still pretty.
At precisely seven o’clock, she hears Jim’s familiar step on the stairs, his key in the door. He is a careworn young man, only twenty-two and already burdened with many responsibilities. He opens the door, sees Della, and an indiscernible look, neither sorrow nor surprise, overtakes him. His face can only be described as bearing a mask of melancholy disbelief. Even though Della rushes to assure him that her hair grows fast and that she will soon be back to normal, Jim cannot seem to be persuaded that her beautiful hair is really gone. Della implores him to understand that she simply could not have lived through Christmas without buying him a gift; she begs him, for her sake, as well as the season’s, to be happy.
Jim, as if waking from a trance, embraces her and readily tells her that there is nothing a shampoo or haircut could do to Della that would alter his love for her. In the excitement he has forgotten to give her gift, and now he offers her a paper-wrapped package. Tearing at it eagerly, Della finds a set of combs, tortoise shell, bejewelled combs that she has so often admired in a shop on Broadway, combs whose color combines perfectly with her own vanished tresses. Her immense joy turns to tears but quickly returns when she remembers just how fast her hair grows.
Jim has not yet seen his beautiful present. She holds it out to him, and the precious metal catches all the nuances of light in the room. It is indeed a beautiful specimen of a watch chain, and Della insists on attaching it to Jim’s watch. Jim looks at her with infinite love and patience and suggests that they both put away their presents—for a while. Jim has sold his watch in order to buy the combs for Della even as she has sold her hair to buy the watch chain for Jim.
Like the Magi, those wise men who invented the tradition of Christmas giving, both Della and Jim have unwisely sacrificed the greatest treasures of their house for each other. However, of all those who give gifts, these two are inevitably the wisest.