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.

The Nativity of Jesus Christ

Whether you go to a Christian church or not, you likely know the Christmas story from 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.

You’ve seen countless Nativity scenes, with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the manger with adoring shepherds and wise men standing or kneeling near by. A donkey, cow, and sheep may complete the scene.

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 of his birth and their versions differ. Luke tells about the trip to Bethlehem and the shepherds’ visit.

Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went from.. Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.

 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.

 While they were there… Mary …gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Luke 2 , CEB
figures in a nativity scene with a bright start in the sky
The Nativity of Christ

When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.”  They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger

Luke 2, CEB

Matthew misses the Bethlehem journey and the shepherds, but from him we meet the wise men- the Magi.

When they (Magi) heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 

 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2, CEB

Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible

“Three 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

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? Or rather, about their gifts.

Three Wise Gifts

In a previous post I told you about William Sydney Porter, who wrote short stories under the pen name of O.Henry. He wrote and published over 600 stories, the most famous of which was published in 1905.

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 frankincense and myrrh 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 over 62 million people worldwide will have become infected with this novel virus which will have killed 1.5 million of them. In the United States 13 million are confirmed infected, and 266,000 have lost their lives to COVID-19. (Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center statistics)

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 don’t know if O.Henry considered the gifts in spiritual terms, he painted an unexpected and ironic picture of what “wise gifts” are in his now classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” (No spoiler alert, I’m not revealing the story plot.)

Christmas 2020

The world needs comfort and 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, doctors still didn’t fully understand the means of spread or how to stop it and medicines to treat it and it’s complications didn’t exist.

“In the case of COVID-19, prolonged disruption, grief, and stress add markedly to the burden of disease.”

Harvey V Fineberg, MD,PhD- JAMA

In a year we will remember for so much

  • uncertainty, friction,unrest,anger,blaming, loss, pain, sickness and death

perhaps the gifts we most need to give one another are

  • understanding, patience, listening, caring, generosity, forgiveness, friendship, and love.


But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days:

Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive
gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones.
They are the magi.

O. Henry

The Gift of the Magi

It’s worth reading, re-reading, watching, or listening to Williams’s story. Do it before you start Christmas shopping; you may change some of your choices once you learn what “wise gifts” are.

Follow the link above to a PDF version which you can print, or any of the other links below (some of which are affiliate links) to read O.Henry’s timeless story. Spoiler alert- the descriptions may reveal the story line, but you probably already know it. You might want to start with the PDF version above.

read the story
watch the movie
look at a picture book
read other stories by O. Henry
listen to the story as told by Kristin Chenoweth

exploring the HEART of Christmas giving

Thanks for joining me to reflect on this timeless story. Whether it was your first time to hear it, or one of many, I hope it tugged at something in your heart.

Thanks for following this blog. If you’re visiting, I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me. I also want you to find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest , Instagram, and LinkedIn .

                              Dr. Aletha 

these three remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest is love
graphic by Althea Solomons at LIGHTSTOCK.COM, affiliate link

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.

Since the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies have vied to develop a safe and effective vaccine so life can get “back to normal”. At the same time, politicians vilified them for their high profits and patients resented the exorbitant prices of prescription drugs.

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

(This post and part 2 to follow use affiliate links, which if you choose to use for a purchase, will generate a small reward to support this blog.)

William Sydney Porter

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, a lung infection still common in many parts of the world).

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.)

Photo by Omkar Jadhav on Pexels.com

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.

marriage and children

William married a young woman, Athol and they had two children-a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter Margaret. Now 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.

media and money

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 (also ironically) tuberculosis which spun out of control. He returned to Texas to care for her until her death in 1897. He was arrested and convicted of embezzlement; he served 5 years in a federal prison. Upon release William moved to New York City, never to return to Texas.

Photo by Enrico Hu00e4nel on Pexels.com

prison, publishing, and poison

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 develop 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 he published a collection called The Four Million which contained a story that became his most read and beloved of all. As 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 successes-and failures-inflicted a price; his chronic and excessive alcohol use turned into an addiction and a disease. After writing more than 600 short stories, William Sydney Porter died of alcoholic liver cirrhosis in 1910. He was 48 years old.

What is irony?

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.

(Spoiler alert: the link will give away the ending, so don’t follow it now, wait for part 2 of this post. )

According to Literary Terms.net

“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.”

In the sequel to this post I talk about those deeper meanings O. Henry wanted us to grasp.

hands holding a small box with a red bow

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.

sharing the HEART of health in literature

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

The Secret Life of William Sydney Porter

Thanks for following this blog. If you’re visiting, I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me. I also want you to find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest , Instagram, and LinkedIn .

                              Dr. Aletha