Why we need the wisest gifts this Christmas

The four Gospels- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John- relate the life of Jesus, but only Matthew and Luke tell the story of his birth and their versions differ. Luke tells about the trip to Bethlehem and the shepherds’ visit. Matthew misses the Bethlehem journey and the shepherds, but from him we meet the wise men- the Magi.

Whether you go to a Christian church or not, you likely are familiar with the Christmas story in the Bible as it is depicted in the Nativity. Nativity is a fancy way to say “birth,” but is especially used to refer to the birth of Jesus Christ.

A young couple named Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for the Roman census.

Mary, pregnant, unexpectedly delivered a baby boy there-in a barn, the only available accommodation on short notice

Local shepherds, directed by angels, came to visit the baby.

And “three wise men”, following a star, came to visit bearing expensive gifts.

3 men dressed as magi, bearing gifts

Except that’s not exactly how the Bible tells it. The four Gospels- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John- relate the life of Jesus, but only Matthew and Luke tell the story and their versions are different. Luke tells about the trip to Bethlehem and the shepherds’ visit. Matthew misses the shepherds, but from him we learn about the wise men.

Most Bible versions call them wise men, a translation of a Greek word Magi, used in the New International Version. The Message Bible calls them “a band of scholars” which might be the most accurate as none of the versions indicate there were only three.

Nor did they visit the barn. Matthew indicates they came to the house, to visit the child. So perhaps this was as much as two years later.

But however many there were and whenever they arrived, they brought three gifts-gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men— who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones.

O. Henry

The Gifts of the Magi (no spoiler alert needed)

In a previous post I told you about William Sydney Porter, the author of this story. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell the story here, I don’t want to spoil it if you’ve never read it.

I assume William, the real name of O. Henry, must have known this Bible story. Why else would a druggist, ranch hand, magazine editor, and convicted felon write a story about Magi?

As a druggist (although of uncertain credentials) I suspect he knew of the medicinal properties attributed to gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We think of gold’s value in terms of money, but 2000 years ago, people probably valued healing substances more than money.

Doctors once treated rheumatoid arthritis with medicines developed from gold,now mostly replaced with more effective and less toxic drugs. Traditional Chinese medicine uses frankinsense and myrhh for their reported anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.

As I write this, scientists are working around the clock studying medicines and vaccines to slow, cure, and prevent the ravages of SARS-CoV-2, a pathogen the world has never encountered before and the likes of one we never want to deal with again. By the time you read this probably over 50 million people worldwide will have become infected with this novel virus which will have killed 1.5 million of them.

The world needs healing this year. People have suffered through several pandemics since the time of Christ’s birth. Imagine how frightening the plagues were at a time when science couldn’t explain the source of disease, much less know how to prevent it. Even as recently as the influenza pandemic of 1918, the means of spread was not well understood and medicines to treat it and it’s complications didn’t exist.

Christian scholars also attribute spiritual significance to the gifts. Among the many references I reviewed, this one sums up the general consensus.

“gold can be taken to symbolise royalty and kingship; frankincense divinity and holiness; and myrrh suffering and death.”

Although we have no record to indicate O.Henry thought of the gifts in spiritual terms, he conveyed an unexpected and ironic picture of what “wise gifts” are.

Perhaps the wisest gifts we can give this year of so much, loss, friction, unrest, blaming, loss,pain, sickness and death are understanding, patience, listening, caring, generosity, forgiveness, friendship, and love.

It’s worth reading, or re-reading the story; watching or listening to it. Do it before you start Christmas shopping; you may change some of your choices. And we should all thank William, aka O.Henry, for leaving us the gift of

The Gift of the Magi

The pharmacist who changed Christmas

After his release from prison William began publishing yearly collections of his short stories. People enjoyed his tales because they dealt with common people in ordinary circumstances but with endings that were unexpected and surprising. Whether humorous or tragic, his tales taught lessons about life in a way that left his readers pondering their own responses to life’s ups and downs.

From the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies vied to develop a safe and effective vaccine as people waited for what was thought to be a way “back to normal”.  At the same time, politicians vilified them for their high profits and patients resented exorbitant prices of prescription drugs.

A little over a century ago a pharmacist told a story that millions read and love today, a tale that taught us the true meaning of Christmas and giving.

William Sydney Porter was born on (ironically) September 11, 1862. His father Algernon Sidney Porter was a medical doctor. When William was 3 years old, his mother died of “consumption (an old term for tuberculosis).

He grew up in Greensboro North Carolina where he clerked for his uncle’s pharmacy Morley Drug Store. At 19 years of age he earned a pharmacy license (although it apparently required no special education or training.)

William developed a chronic cough which caught the attention of Dr. James Hall. He invited William to go with him to Texas to visit his son’s ranch, thinking this would help resolve the cough. William recovered and worked on the ranch for 2 years.

William married a young woman, Athol and they had two children-a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter Margaret. With a family he needed a reliable source of income so he took a job as a teller at National Bank of Austin. This proved to be a decision that would change the course of their lives.

In addition to his bank job, William started a newspaper called The Rolling Stone .(Apparently the current magazine of the same name is not related. ) When it went bankrupt, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Post.

Unfortunately some accounting discrepancies at the bank led to accusations of embezzlement against William . Although the charge was likely unjustified, fearing prosecution, he fled Texas, first to Louisiana, and then to Guatemala, without his wife and child.

In his absence, Athol contracted tuberculosis which spun out of control. He returned to Texas care for her, but upon her death in 1897 he was arrested and convicted of embezzlement; he served 5 years in a federal prison and upon release moved to New York City.

His time in prison was not wasted. As a licensed pharmacist, he was allowed to work as a druggist in the prison hospital, enjoying a better quality of life than most prisoners. Working the night shift, gave him time to pursue his writing talent. Under a pen name (since he didn’t want to reveal he was an inmate), he began writing and publishing short stories.

After his release from prison William began publishing yearly collections of his short stories. People enjoyed his tales because they dealt with common people in ordinary circumstances but with endings that were unexpected and surprising. Whether humorous or tragic, his tales taught lessons about life in a way that left his readers pondering their own responses to life’s ups and downs.

In 1906 the collection was called The Four Million and contained a story that became his most read and beloved of all. Like in many of his stories, he used irony to create an unexpected ending to what would otherwise have been a sweet but predictable love story.

His writing failures and successes came with a price; his alcohol use turned into an addiction. After writing more than 600 stories,William Sydney Porter died of alcoholic liver cirrhosis at 48 years old, in 1910.

So even though William died 110 years ago, he is still very much alive through the words he wrote. He even has a Facebook page. And the man who once published a magazine has one named after him.

You’ve probably guessed this famous writer’s name, that is his pen name- William Sydney Porter became O. Henry.

The most common purpose of irony is to create humor and/or point out the absurdity of life… life has a way of contradicting our expectations, often in painful ways.

Irony generally makes us laugh, even when the circumstances are tragic. We laugh not because the situations were tragic, but because they violate our expectations.

The contrast between people’s expectations and the reality of the situations is not only funny, but also meaningful because it calls our attention to how wrong human beings can be.

Irony is best when it points us towards deeper meanings of a situation.

The secret life of WSP, cherrymag.com

https://literaryterms.net/irony/

I compiled this brief biography of O. Henry from several different sources, all of which generally conveyed the same events and timeline, some adding details not mentioned in others. All can be easily found by a simple search. This was one of my favorite sources.

In my next post I’ll talk about those deeper meanings O. Henry wanted us to grasp.

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