The Most Beautiful Thing
Above the path, the long arms of an ancient tree reached upward to the sky. It swayed and moaned as strong winds grasped its branches and bent them toward the earth. Down below a haughty laugh sounded, and a lovely fir tree stretched and preened its thick green branches, sending a fine spray of snow shimmering downward to the ground.
“I should think,” said the fir in a high smug voice, “That you’d try a little harder to stand still. Goodness knows you’re ugly enough with the leaves you’ve already lost. If you move around anymore, you’ll soon be quite bare.”
“I know,” answered the old tree. “Everything has put on its most beautiful clothes for the celebration of the birth of Christ. Even from here I can see the decorations shining from each street corner. And yesterday some men came and put the brightest, loveliest lights on every tree along the path–except me of course.” He sighed softly, and a flake of snow melted in the form of a teardrop and ran down his gnarled trunk.
“Oh, indeed! And did you expect they’d put lights upon you so your ugliness would stand out even more?” smirked the fir.
“I guess you’re right,” replied the old tree in a sad voice. “If there were only somewhere I could hide until after the celebrations are over, but here I stand, the only ugly thing among all this beauty. If they would only come and chop me down,” and he sighed sorrowfully.
“Well, I don’t wish you any ill will,” replied the fir, “But you are an eyesore. Perhaps it would be better for us all if they came and chopped you down.” Once again he stretched his lovely thick branches. “You might try to hang onto those three small leaves you still have. At least you wouldn’t be completely bare.”
“Oh, I’ve tried so hard,” cried the old tree “Each fall I say to myself, ‘this year I won’t give up a single leaf, no matter what the cause,’ but someone always comes along who seems to need them more than I,” And he sighed once again.
“I told you not to give so many to that dirty little paper boy,” said the fir. “Why you even lowered your branches a little bit, so that he could reach them. You can’t say I didn’t warn you then.”
“Yes you did at that,” the old tree replied. “But they made him so happy. I heard him say he would pick some for his invalid mother,~
“Oh, they all had good causes,” mocked the fir, that young girl, for instance, colored leaves for her party indeed! They were your leaves!”
“She took a lot, didn’t she?” said the old tree, and he seemed to smile.
Just then a cold wind blew down the path and a tiny brown bird fell to the ground at the foot of the old tree and lay there shivering, too cold to lift its wings. The old tree looked down in pity and then he quickly let go of his last three leaves. The golden leaves fluttered down and settled softly over the shivering little bird, and it lay there quietly under the warmth of them.
“Now you’ve done it!” shrieked the fir. You’ve given away every single leaf! Christmas morning you’ll make your path the ugliest sight in the whole city!”
The old tree said nothing. Instead he stretched out his branches to gather what snowflakes he could that they might not fall on the tiny bird. The young fir turned away in anger, and it was then he noticed a painter sitting quietly a few feet from the path, intent upon his long brushes and his canvas. His clothes were old and tattered, and his face wore a sad expression. He was thinking of his loved ones and the empty, cheerless Christmas morning they would face, for he had sold not a single painting in the last months.
But the little tree didn’t see this. Instead he turned back to the old tree and said in a haughty voice, “At least keep those bare branches as far away from me as possible. I’m being painted and hideousness will mar the background.”
“I’ll try,” replied the old tree. And he raised his branches as high as possible. It was almost dark when the painter picked up his easel and left. And the little fir was tired and cross from all his preening and posing.
Christmas morning he awoke late, and as he proudly shook away the snow from his lovely branches, he was amazed to see a huge crowd of people surrounding the old tree, ah-ing and oh-ing as they stood back and gazed upward. And even those hurrying along the path had to stop for a moment to sigh before they went on.
“Whatever could it be?” thought the haughty fir, and he too looked up to see if perhaps the top of the old tree had been broken off during the night.
Just then a paper blew away from the hands of an enraptured newsboy and sailed straight into the young fir. The fir gasped in amazement, for there on the front page was a picture of the painter holding his painting of a great white tree whose leafless branches, laden with snow, stretched upward into the sky. While down below lay a tiny brown bird almost covered by three golden leaves. And beneath the picture were the words, “The Most Beautiful Thing Is That Which Hath Given All.”
The young fir quietly bowed its head beneath the great beauty of the humble old tree.
[unknown, submitted by reader]
THE GIFT OF THE MAGI
by O. Henry
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas. There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”
Down rippled the brown cascade.
“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
“Give it to me quick,” said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”
At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
Wisdom at Christmas & every day!
It was quiet at the retirement home, each elderly person had their memories, some filled with a special family Christmas and some not so joyful times. As Lynn and Diane stood there carefully analyzing each one, they whispered to each other as if discussing their very own children and suddenly their eyes met unspoken thoughts whirled through their minds for it was clear that these people had become the children of yesterday.
Nana just turned 84 on Dec. 14th, she wanted one thing for christmas. She wanted to see her husband, Charley but this was impossible to give her. Diane managed to get lots of pictures of Charley and put them in a beautifully wrapped box. Mary wanted Pork Chops for dinner, that was in addition to Turkey and Gravy of course. Richard wanted to get his drivers license, not to drive, but to be able to tell his son that he could drive if he wanted to. Mary Catherine wanted a good looking man, you know the kind that is a smooth dancer. Her daughter kept telling her, “mom, dad didn’t dance?” Mary Catherine would just grin. Norman just hoped he’d get a card from one of his five children, this was a thirty year old wish, but maybe this was the Christmas. Joe wanted his Doctor to tell Diane to let him have all the Bayer Aspirin he wanted on Christmas day so he’d be able to dance the Irish jig, in spite of his Arthritis. Dorothy wanted to watch one soap opera after another all Christmas day without being disturbed by the foolishness of a Holiday dinner or singing Christmas Carols. She didn’t want some foolish phone call from New York either. Zola never verbalized what she desired but every day thanked God for the beauty of being alive. Each individual, each child the same, so different, so unique.
If Diane or Lynn had the power to give them anything, they agreed, it would be peace of mind in knowing that their time on earth was well spent. Why? Each person had a legacy they had sprinkled in the lives of these young folks, as they called them. They had taught them that life is the gift, wisdom is the gift, aging is the reward, and Christmas is a symbol of desires never expected to be.
Today is Christmas for Lynn and Diane. The Retirement home is closed for good, all the folks have passed away except Zola who lives with her son now. Lynn is sitting on the sunporch telling the proprietor of the home where he now resides that he’d sure like to get his driver’s license, just to show his son he could still drive. Diane is trying to tell the cook that Porkchops would taste a lot better than Turkey. Time has passed but people stay the same. Enjoy your Christmas and every day for one day you too might be that someone else and believe me it will happen. –Anonymous