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by William H. Benson

December 18, 2014

     Della sold her hair to buy “a platinum watch fob” for Jim, her husband, and he sold his watch to buy “tortoise shell combs” for Della’s hair. On Christmas Day they opened their presents, and neither he nor she could enjoy his or her gift. Without her long hair, she no longer needed the combs, and without his watch, he no longer needed a watch fob. That is the plot that the American author O. Henry reveals in his splendid short story, The Gift of the Magi.

     “The Grinch hated Christmas.” And why did he feel that way? “It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps that his shoes were too tight, or perhaps that his heart was two sizes too small.” Whatever his motivation, he decides to steal Christmas. When Cindy Lou in Whoville asks the Grinch why he was taking her Christmas tree up the chimney, he lies, and says that he needed to return it to his workshop to repair “a light on this tree that won’t light on one side.”

     After he steals all the trees, presents, and food, “leaving crumbs much too small for the other Who’s mouses,” he hears singing down in Whoville. “He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” That is the plot that Dr. Seuss reveals in his children’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

     Charlie Brown feels depressed because of the commercialization of Christmas. To snap him out of his blues, Lucy van Pelt suggests that he direct the Christmas play, and he tries, but the other children are more interested in dancing to Schroeder’s song that he plays on his small piano rather than learning their lines. Charlie Brown leaves and purchases a pitiful sapling that he brings back to the auditorium. The other children see his tree, ridicule it, laugh, and leave.

     Charlie Brown wonders aloud if he knows what Christmas is all about. Linus overhears him, and so he reads aloud the Christmas story. He reads of shepherds who watch over their flocks at night, of an angel that appears before the shepherds, of the angel’s glad news that a child is born that night and is lying in a manger, and of the “heavenly host singing ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.’” Linus concludes, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!”

     That is the plot of Charles M. Schulz’s animated cartoon special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, that first aired on December 9, 1965.  

     Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, appears one night in Scrooge’s dream, even though Marley had died seven years before. Scrooge notices that Marley carries chains, and so Scrooge asks him, “You are fettered. Tell me why?” Marley replies, “I wear the chains I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

     Marley warns Scrooge that three ghosts will appear that night. The ghosts so terrify Scrooge that when he awakens, he decides that he too will celebrate Christmas that year. That is the plot that Charles Dickens reveals in his classic tale, A Christmas Carol.

     James Herriot, the country veterinarian in England, receives a call on Christmas day from Mrs. Ainsworth. “It’s Debbie,” she says. James learns that Debbie is a stray cat who appears at Mrs. Ainsworth’s door every two weeks to warm herself before the fire for no more than ten minutes and then leaves. On this day though she appears with a small kitten in her mouth, and then she stays.

     James examines Debbie and discovers “a hard lobulated mass deep among the viscera. Massive lymphosarcoma. Terminal and hopeless.” There, before the fire, Debbie slips into a coma and dies. Mrs. Ainsworth sobs as she pets Debbie’s matted hair.

     One year later, on Christmas day, Mrs. Ainsworth invites James into her home, and he sees that that pitiful kitten, now named Buster, has grown into a sizable tomcat that loves to retrieve a hard rubber ball. Mrs. Ainsworth says, “Debbie would be pleased. Buster is the best Christmas present I ever had.” The Christmas cat is just one story in James Herriot’s wonderful book All Things Wise and Wonderful.

     In The Gift of the Magi, the difficulty is not permanent. Della’s hair would grow and months later she could use the combs, and Jim could save some of his salary until he could purchase another watch. Both the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge experience a welcome change of heart, and each can then enjoy Christmas. Charlie Brown listens and understands the Christmas story, and Mrs. Ainsworth’s sorrow and tears, when she watched Debbie die, were replaced by pure joy when she cared and played with that Christmas kitten that she named Buster.


     When we read the texts of Christmas—the season’s sights, sounds, smells, and symbols—we transform ourselves into better people. Charles Dickens said it best. “Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, which is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance!” Although Andy Williams is no longer with us, we still hear his words, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” ‘Tis true. If we read the season’s texts, we can enjoy Christmas.