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The Gift Of The Magi … And “Going Beyond The Pale”

With only 15 days left on the countdown clock, I venture to say no New Year’s Eve has ever been more eagerly anticipated than the one soon to come. And while 2020 has certainly been a year stuffed full of awful, there have been some bright spots …

One of the great curiosities of the human psyche is our innate ability to find goodness within the badness. Silver linings are always there, we just have to look a little closer to find them, at times. No doubt, 2020 has been a year of heartbreak and sorrow. Loved ones and normal routines have been snatched away and there are simply no words to describe that profound emptiness.

And while businesses have closed and jobs have been lost — and I mean this in all good taste — others have prospered through innovation, creating new spaces to conduct business. Imagine what 2020 will look like on the year-end balance sheet if you toil in those industries that produce toilet paper, hand sanitizer, plastic shields, latex gloves and commercial tents, for instance.

Some say 2020 has moved at a slow slog for them while others say it’s been a whirling dervish. In some cases, it has been a combo of the two. Now just might be the perfect time to slow down for a minute or two and revisit a wonderful story written in 1905 at Pete’s Tavern in New York City by the great essayist O. Henry.


The Gift of the Magi


A buck, eighty-seven.

That’s all Della had after paying the rent, the light bill and the weekly grocery tab. A buck, eighty-seven.

And tomorrow is Christmas Day.

It wasn’t just the frustration of being down to a few last coins, it was looking around at the shabby New York City flat she and Jim, her recently wedded husband, lived in and realizing this was all they could afford. As hard as they both worked – she in the home and he at a nearby business — they never seemed to be able to get ahead.

“Poor” wasn’t the way Della saw herself but she was, indeed, poor when it came to the checkbook. It hadn’t helped that the economy had softened and Jim’s meager $30 a week salary had been cut to $20. She felt utterly overwhelmed. Her resolve wasn’t up to the task this day and the dam broke on a torrent of tears.

And again, tomorrow is Christmas Day. And she had less than two dollars to spend on a gift for her husband whom she loved more than anything.

Gathering herself, Della stood in front of the mirror – actually a piece of pier-glass that held her reflection – and let her hair down, down, down. All the way to her knees. She may not have much but all agreed Della’s beautiful, shiny, brown locks were the finest in town. She brushed her hair as a way to calm herself and metaphorically brush away her tears.

Meanwhile in his office, Jim glanced at his prized pocket watch, handed down through generations of his family, then looked up at the calendar. “Oh, no …” he thought. “It’s Christmas Eve.”

He’d dreamed of giving his beloved wife the fine set of brushes and combs with the polished  tortoise-shell handles he’d seen every day in the shop window on his way to and from work. But the cut in pay had drained him of the very few extra dollars he’d managed to squirrel away.

And tomorrow is Christmas Day.

Back in the flat, Della is suddenly struck by an idea, gathers her coat and rushes out the door to Madame Sofronie’s store, Hair Goods of All Kinds. She walks up a flight of stairs and asks to speak to the owner. Madame Safronie, a fine weaver of wigs and other hair adornments, eyes Della and asks, “How can I help you?”

“I want to sell you my hair!”

Fifteen minutes later, Della leaves the shop, her locks barely reaching her shoulders, and clutches tightly the $20 bill she’d just received. Heading directly to the men’s store, Della purchases a shiny, platinum chain for Jim’s cherished pocket watch … for $20.

Tomorrow is Christmas … and it will be wonderful!

Back at the office, Jim reaches for his satchel full of papers, turns out the light and locks the door behind him. It’s five o’clock and he’s on a mission. He walks quickly to the jewelry store on the corner and asks the owner if he’d be interested in buying the cherished pocket watch, the one carried by his father, his grandfather and, before that, his great grandfather. The shop owner examines it closely under a magnifying glass, turning it over and over again, and listening closely to the rhythmic ticking.

“Twenty dollars,” he finally says.

“I’ll take it!”

Jim rushes out of the store and down the street to Madame Safronie’s store because he knows they close at 5:30PM sharp. And this was Christmas Eve so they might even close earlier. Relieved to see the “Open” sign still on the door, he enters and points to the beautiful set of brushes and combs in the window, the ones with the tortoise-shell handles, and says, “I’d like to buy those, please … and can you wrap them, too?”

Back in the flat, Della is trying desperately to curl what’s left of her beautiful hair. One by one, a curl is formed and, just as she tousles her hair to complete the styling, she hears Jim at the door. Would he still love me without my long hair, she wondered?

The key latch clicks open and Jim enters the room. He stops when he sees Della and a confused look crosses his face. “Oh, no” she thinks, “I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.”

After a moment or two, Jim crosses the room silently and slumps into a chair. When Della approaches, he hands her a delightfully wrapped box and says, “Open this. You’ll understand the look on my face.” Della carefully and timidly unwraps the box, confused and worried. Lifting the lid, she gasps when she sees the beautiful assortment of brushes and combs. For the second time today, her resolve isn’t up to the task and the dam breaks on a torrent of tears. Jim holds her tightly until the sobbing stops.

Della then reaches into a drawer and pulls out a delightfully wrapped box and hands it to Jim. “Open this. You’ll understand why I’m crying.” He carefully and timidly unwraps the box, curious but concerned. Lifting the lid, he gasps when he sees the beautiful platinum chain for his treasured pocket watch.

Looking into her eyes, he says, “Della, my love, I sold my watch to buy you the combs.” Now, both were sobbing though it was a joyous flow of tears because they knew, more than ever, how deeply they loved each other and how far each would go to make the other happy.

They put away their presents and sat down to a wonderful dinner, aglow in each other’s love and the knowledge they are like the magi, the wisest of anyone who understands gifting.

Tomorrow is Christmas Day … and what a wonderful Christmas it already was!

“Going Beyond The Pale”

Hundreds of years ago in Ireland, an expression was born and it lives on today – “going beyond The Pale”. You may not have heard it so let me explain. It began as a bit of an eyebrow-raiser and generally carried a harsh, judgmental tone. Over time, that has softened considerably.

Back in the mid-1600s, The Pale was a strip of land that stretched from Dundalk in Louth to Dalkey in Dublin and became the base of English rule in Ireland. It was considered the area where civilized folks lived and to stray beyond its borders – hence, beyond The Pale — meant someone had gone “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior”. Over time, the expression has evolved and generally when Americans use it, they’re describing someone who goes above and beyond the personal or professional call-of-duty.

The connection I make between The Gift of the Magi and “going beyond The Pale” is a willingness to create real meaning for another; finding a profound purpose and going out of your way to help someone else.

Certainly, 2020 has been a year of more “downs” than “ups” and many, many thousands, if not millions, of people have gone “beyond The Pale” to help others in need. We know the obvious ones – healthcare professionals, first-responders, teachers, etc. – but there are countless more who have also gone the extra mile for another with little to no awareness or notoriety. Clearly, angels walk among us.

Whether it’s Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa or another holiday you celebrate, I hope you’ll find time to brush away the challenges of the past nine months and reflect on the spirit of so many wonderful people around you, including yourself.


Kenneth Jones