Starving Artist No More Blog

009: The Gift of the Magi

entrepreneurship gratitude mindset Dec 27, 2022
Starving Artist No More | Jennifer Jill Araya
009: The Gift of the Magi

We’re in the midst of the holiday season. Perhaps you have snow on the ground where you live, or maybe it’s the middle of summer for you. My family in Chile are enjoying beautiful summer weather right now. But regardless of where you are or what the weather is outside, and regardless of which holidays you and your family celebrate together, I hope you’re enjoying a wonderful and blessed holiday season. I savored a beautiful Christmas with my family this past weekend, and we’re getting ready for our annual New Year’s Eve movie marathon this coming Saturday. For today’s “in the middle of the holidays” podcast episode, and in the spirit of holiday giving, I have a Christmas story I want to share with you: The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry.


Hello thriving artists, and welcome to Episode #9 of the Starving Artist No More podcast. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Araya, and I’m so happy you’re here with me on this Tuesday after Christmas, or at least that’s the date when this episode is first being released. I want to wish you happy holidays! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, Happy New Year – happy whatever you celebrate this time of year. Merry everything! As I mentioned in the introduction, my family celebrates Christmas, and we had a wonderful holiday a few days ago. I hope you, too, are enjoying a lovely holiday season with those you love.

I first read The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry years and years ago, long enough ago that I don’t actually remember when it was. It feels as if I’ve always known and loved this story. For other people, Charles Dicken’s The Christmas Carol might epitomize the Christmas season. For me, it’s always been The Gift of the Magi. Every time I have ever read it, the depth of the young couple’s love for each other has touched me deeply, and the level of their sacrifice has both moved me and made me profoundly sad. I think this story has a lot to teach us, especially for us creative entrepreneurs.

If you’ve never read O. Henry’s short story for yourself, let me give you a four-sentence synopsis. I’m going to read the full short story for you in a minute, but this little summary will help you understand why I want to share this story with you as part of my podcast. The Gift of the Magi tells the tale of a young couple, Jim and Della, who love each other dearly and who long to buy the “perfect” Christmas gift for each other. Unfortunately, they lack the financial resources to buy those perfect gifts. So, to buy Jim a chain for his gold watch, which is his most prized possession, Della cuts off – sells – her luxurious, long hair. She doesn’t care that her hair is her own most prized possession. If she can get the perfect gift for Jim, it will all be worth it! Except Jim likewise sells his most prized possession, his gold watch, so that he can buy beautiful gold combs that Della has looked at longingly in the shop window, combs that she could wear in her beautiful long hair … that she cut off to buy Jim’s watch chain, for the watch that he sold to buy her combs.

These two people both sacrificed their most prized possession for the sake of the one they loved the most, which is absolutely an admirable thing to do. You would do anything for the ones you love, right? But by sacrificing themselves so spectacularly, they also robbed the joy from the gift that they received, thus robbing the gift giver of a gift thankfully received and joyfully used. Neither Jim nor Della could actually use the gift that the other had sacrificed so extravagantly to purchase for them.

You’d think that sacrificing like this for the ones you love most would be a good thing, right? But in Jim and Della’s case, it resulted in them working at cross purposes. Just like the airline warning message always says to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, you have a right and a responsibility to care for yourself first so that you can then care for others. Self-care really does matter. It’s not just a buzz-word. Only by tending to our own needs and keeping our own selves healthy and whole can we be the best versions of ourselves and be the best partners, friends, and family members to those we love and care about.

The starving artist stereotype is built on the myth that sacrificing everything for your art is the only way to exist as an artist in this world. But just like Jim and Della discovered, when we sacrifice everything for the sake of a single pursuit, we end up sacrificing joy along the way. We end up losing more than we gain.

My educational background is in music. I studied both voice and cello at conservatory. I love opera, and there is no starving artist story more celebrated in the opera world than that of the characters in Pucinni’s La Boheme. At the very opening of the opera – almost the first thing that happens after the curtain goes up – the characters burn the manuscript of Rodolfo’s drama in an effort to warm their frozen fingers. Actually, Marcello, Rodolfo’s roommate, offers to burn the painting he is working on, but “painted canvas smells,” so they decide to burn Rodolfo’s manuscript instead.

Literally burning your work in an effort to meet your basic physical needs. This is what society tells us that artists – that all creatives – should do and should expect. Society says that artists shouldn’t expect to live off their art, let alone thrive off their art. That sacrifices in the name of art are good and right and necessary.

I think this is ridiculous. Not just ridiculous, but actually harmful to the creative souls who give life and color and story and joy to our collective world. Sacrificing yourself for your art hurts you and your art and your audience, and it benefits no one. I am here to tell you that it is possible to build a creative business that meets your needs – ALL of them: personally, creatively, and financially – regardless of what creative field you are in. Whether you are a visual artist or a writer or a craftsman or an artisan or an actor or a musician, you CAN use your creative energy to build a business that fulfills you. It is possible. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself or your most prized possession to get there. Unlike Jim and Della, you can both take joy in your most prized possession and also build loving, thriving, mutually supportive relationships with those around you. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself on the altar of your art. You can be a thriving artist, not a starving artist.

And so, with those opening thoughts, and that explanation of why I wanted to share this particular story with you on my podcast this Tuesday between Christmas and New Year’s, without further ado, I present to you, The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry. Narrated by Jennifer Jill Araya.


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: “Mme. 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 of saying a 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 then 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. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.


Thank you for joining me for this episode of the Starving Artist No More podcast. I hope you enjoyed my narration of The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, and I hope it encourages you to be careful what you sacrifice in the name of your art. Self-care is not foolish or selfish; it is honoring yourself, your art, and your work. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, or any of my podcast episodes, I would be so appreciative if you would leave me a rating and review, and of course, subscribe to this podcast. If you think this episode or this podcast would be helpful to one of your fellow creatives, please pass it along. As always, I love to receive listener feedback, and you are welcome to reach out to me with any comments or questions via my website, I wish you a blessed and joyous holiday season with those you love. May you be ready to dive into 2023 fired up about building a business that meets your needs holistically: personally, creatively, and financially. I know that you can build that kind of creative business. I can’t wait to see what you create.


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