Do you recognize this man? No, its not Snively Wiplash from some silent picture era film. Its actually William Sidney Porter one of the most popular short story writers from the South ever. He was born just up the road from me in Greensboro North Carolina and buried in Asheville N.C., and I remember a school trip in the 1950s when we went from High Point to Greensboro on the train (yes Virginia we had passenger trains in N.C. when I was in elementary school that went to small and medium sized towns at various times of day), and one thing we did was see the plaque on a building in Greensboro where he had once lived or worked in a pharmacy. You may well know him by his pen name— O.Henry (not to be confused with the candy bar, which stole his pen name).
O. Henry was born in Greensboro during the Civil War in 1862 the son of a doctor. As a child he loved to read, but he also seems to have been an asthmatic which in due course prompted his family to move to Texas, where the climate was thought to be less humid. Porter was many things and a man of many jobs during his brief life (he died in 1910) including a bank teller, cowboy, sheep herder, merchant, miner, druggist, and journalist–as well as a convicted embezzler (though he got a raw deal in that regard).
But most importantly O.Henry was a writer of considerable distinction. He became famous for his surprise endings, which are fully on display in his two most famous stories, The Ransom of Red Chief, and more importantly for this Christmas season, The Gift of the Magi. The latter story has been told and retold many times over, printed and reprinted, made into a TV show or the basis of the movie etc. Here is one of the many covers for this story—
What I like best about this Christmas story is not merely that it is free from the materialism and narcissism that so plagues the Christmas season of our era but also that it reminds us of a simpler time in our country where there could be an innocence and self-sacrificial quality to a romantic story without it being a fairy tale. Indeed, I could tell you a story very much like it from my own family. In the meantime, if you are looking for a Christmas story to read your children, forget about Grinches that steal Christmas or Scrooges that sour it, and go for this one which shows how to keep Christmas….or give it away.