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.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and Della is distraught. The meager savings she managed to put aside to purchase a gift for her beloved husband is a mere $1.87. It is simply not enough for a present worthy of her Jim.
There were brighter days for this young, loving couple. Earlier, Jim managed to bring home thirty dollars a week. Now, with their income reduced to twenty dollars a week, there is nothing left after basic living expenses are met. Della managed to save her $1.87 by doggedly bullying the grocer, the vegetable man, and the butcher into giving her better prices. Lean living, however, has not dimmed the couple’s devotion to one another. Jim returns home from his job punctually every evening to be greeted by Della’s loving embrace.
Della simply cannot bear the thought of giving her husband a shabby gift or no gift at all. She collapses in tears of frustration, but then inspiration strikes. After taking a long look at herself in a mirror, Della is reminded that her assets extend beyond the pittance she is hoarding. She catches sight of her long, flowing hair, the one worldly possession she takes pride in, and realizes that there is a way to accomplish her goal.
Della sheds a few tears for what will be her lost glory. Just as quickly, however, she represses her emotions, scoops up her old jacket and hat, and leaves the flat. Arriving at a shop whose sign reads Mme Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds, Della inquires what the proprietress would pay for her hair. Coldly, Madame Sonofrie appraises Della’s tresses with an experienced eye and hand and offers twenty dollars. Without hesitation, Della submits to the shearing and walks out with money in hand. After two hours of joyful searching, Della finds the perfect gift for Jim.
If Della has one possession that means the world to her, Jim has one, too, a beautiful gold watch that belonged to his father and his grandfather before him. Jim does not display the watch willingly, however, for it hangs on an old leather strap instead of a suitable gold chain.
Jim will not have to be circumspect any longer about his watch; Della finds a platinum fob chain, simple in design and of exquisite quality, which will do justice to Jim’s treasure. Thrilled that she procured a gift worthy of her husband, Della hurries home to repair the damage the shearing did.
After styling her short hair into curls that resemble those of a “truant schoolboy” or a “Coney Island chorus girl,” Della readies the dinner things and sits down near the door. As she waits expectantly, gift in hand, she prays that he will still find her pretty.
Punctual as always, Jim arrives. As he steps inside the door, he freezes, his eyes on Della. Della cannot read his reaction. It does not seem to be anger, disapproval, surprise, or anything she might expect. He simply stares. She runs up to him and pleads with him not to be upset; she sold her hair so that she could give him a present for Christmas.
When Jim finally comes out of his stupor of disbelief, he takes Della into his arms. He admits that nothing could make him love her any less, but that if she will have a look at what he bought her for Christmas, she will understand his shock. He draws a package out of his overcoat pocket and hands it to her. Della quickly unwraps the parcel and lets out a shriek of joy that soon turns to tears, for Jim’s gift to her is a pair of combs, side and back, tortoise shell with jeweled rims, which she long admired in a shop window. She never dreamed that she would actually be able to have them.
Once her tears subside, she reminds Jim, weakly, that her hair grows very fast. She brightens when she recalls that Jim did not yet see his present. She holds the fob out to him expectantly, reminding him that now he can look at the time a hundred times a day. Upon seeing Della’s gift, Jim collapses on the couch and smiles at her. He suggests that they put their lovely Christmas gifts away for a while; he sold his watch to buy Della the combs.