And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. - Matthew 2
“The Gift of the Magi” is O. Henry’s most popular story, no doubt because it deals with young love. And yet something about the title and conclusion raises questions. Why are Della and Jim likened to the three Magi in the story of the birth of Jesus? The Magi are not only rich but they are kings. Della and Jim are barely getting by on twenty dollars a week. The three kings give valuable presents including gold. Jim has to sacrifice his watch and Della her hair to buy simple Christmas presents. The Magi in the New Testament do not give presents to each other. Most significantly, the Magi bring gifts to a newborn baby. But there is no baby in O. Henry’s story.
Or is there?
I believe that O. Henry initially intended to draw an analogy with the story of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. Jim and Della Young can hardly be compared with the Magi. The Three Kings, as they are also called in the New Testament, brought gifts to the baby Jesus. O. Henry gives an interesting hint that the common denominator between the two stories is a baby. Here is the one significant passage:
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family!
Della does not think Jim is burdened with a wife but is to be burdened with a family. It should hardly come as a surprise that Della is expecting a baby, what with all that hugging and kissing going on.
O. Henry apparently started his story with the intention of equating Della's unborn baby with the baby in the New Testament but must have realized he would be risking offending a great many readers who believed Mary was a virgin and her baby the son of God. Some readers might even think O. Henry was implying that Della's baby was the long-awaited second coming of Christ.
The sentence quoted above is interesting in its construction. Della thinks: "...and to be burdened with a family!" In other words, Jim is going to be burdened but he is not burdened yet. Jim probably doesn't know it because she is reluctant to tell him. (These things happen.) We know she doesn't have the baby yet, because:
With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Many people have asked about how the biblical story of the Magi applies to Jim and Della Young. In its final form it does not apply to them very suitably. They are poor, while the Magi were all kings bringing luxury gifts which included gold. The Magi did not give gifts to each other, as Jim and Della do. The Magi did not have to make any sacrifices to raise money. It would appear that there is a hidden secret in this story. O. Henry started out to draw an analogy between a contemporary young couple who were going to have a baby and a couple named Joseph and Mary who had to spend the night in a stable. What the two couples have in common is poverty.
O. Henry--who wrote under relentless deadline pressure and was said to drink two quarts of whiskey a day--had to be content with suggesting that the gift of the Magi was Jim and Della's spiritual enlightenment in realizing that their love was more important than material possessions. Della fears Jim will cease to love her because she looks strange. She needs his love at this time in particular. She is not unlike many young wives who find themselves pregnant and are afraid to break the news because they don't know how their husbands will react. Della's anxiety throughout the story, as well as her motivation to please her Jim, is probably more attributable to her unrevealed pregnancy than to any urgent desire to buy him a nice Christmas present.