A Christmas Legacy: The Gaffes of the Magi

By John Kelly
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Frankly, things have always been a little tense around our household come Christmastime. They have been ever since that Christmas.

That's what we call it: " that Christmas." Father and Mother usually try to give a little laugh after saying it, but it always comes out hollow.

Of course, we children -- there are eight of us now: three boys and five girls -- weren't around that Christmas. Then it had just been Della and James Young, newlyweds still in the rosy glow of young love.

I'm the middle son, and I first heard about that Christmas from Jack, my older brother. When I was about 12, he tossed me a slim volume with a page turned down and said, "Peter, my boy, I'm no Dr. Freud, but read this and you'll gain a better understanding of old Mater and Pater."

It was the short story by that O. Henry man, about how Mama had sold her hair to buy Papa a platinum watch chain and Papa had sold his pocket watch to buy Mama tortoiseshell combs. Mr. Henry had heard the story from our landlord -- everyone in our building knew it -- and hadn't even bothered to change the names.

"It practically wrote itself" is what he supposedly said when he brought an inscribed copy of his book to our apartment a few months later. He'd bought back Papa's watch from the pawnshop, so I suppose he figured he'd done his part. He'd provided the happy ending.

I don't blame O. Henry for what happened next. What writer could predict it? What reader would believe it? The following Christmas, Papa sold his best shoes to buy Mama a fine lace tablecloth. Mama sold the dining room table to purchase a silver shoehorn for Papa.

I think they found that funny. It was funny the next year, too, when Mama sold the tablecloth to buy Papa a reel for his fishing rod only to find that he had sold his fishing rod to buy her a new table.

But the year after that, Papa sold some of his blood to the medical school so he could buy Mama a fancy collar for her cat, Preston. But Mama had sold Preston to a violin string maker to buy Papa some fine Scotch whisky, which he couldn't drink on account of so much of his blood being gone.

Every year was the same. They seemed not to be able to help themselves. Our family came to dread Christmas. "It's a holiday littered with ironies" is how Jack puts it. I don't know what ironies are, but I do know that one year Mama sold her iron to buy Papa a golf bag and Papa sold his golf clubs to buy Mama a new ironing board.

("An ironing board, Jim?" Mama said. "An ironing board?")

We children aren't immune, either. Because there are so many of us, we pick a partner and exchange gifts. Last year, I sold my bicycle to buy Jack a magnifying glass for his stamp collection. He'd sold his stamp collection to buy me a kickstand.

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