Sara Not

The Gift of the Magi

Would you give up the thing you treasure most?

By Mack Lewis (adaptation of O. Henry’s classic holiday tale)

Learning Objective: As students read this adaptation of the classic O. Henry story, they will identify the big idea about what giving really means.

Think and Read: The Big Idea

Della and Jim learn an unexpected lesson about giving gifts. As you read, think about what that lesson might be.

Scene 1

New York City,
two days before Christmas, 1900

Narrator 1: The holidays are near. It’s a time of love and celebration.

Narrator 2: And gifts too.

Narrator 3: This story is based on the magi [MAYJ-eye].

N1: They were wise men who lived thousands of years ago.

N2: They invented the idea of giving presents at Christmastime.

N3: But it’s also about two people who might seem foolish.

N1: They sacrificed their greatest treasures to celebrate Christmas.

N2: Their names were Della and Jim. They were a married couple in New York City.

Della: What a beautiful walk that was!

Jim: I love New York at Christmastime.

Della: What should we do now?

Jim: Let’s check out the shops.

Della: But we don’t have any money.

Jim: It costs nothing to look.

Della (peeking in a window): Look at those hair combs! I’ve wanted them forever. They’d look so good in my hair.

Jim: Your hair is already so long and beautiful.

Della: Do you really think so?

Jim: I do. You’re gorgeous. I may be poor, but I’m the luckiest man in all of New York!

Scene 2

The next morning, Jim and Della’s apartment

N3: Yes, Jim was poor.

N1: He and Della lived in a shabby little apartment.

N2: But Jim had one item he was proud of: his pocket watch.

Jim (checking his watch): I have to leave for work.

Della: You look so worldly when you glance at your watch.

Jim: I do? Even with this old leather strap I use instead of a chain?

Della (hugging him): Who notices the strap when such a handsome man is holding it?

N3: On the way out of the building, Jim waved to the janitor, Sydney.

Sydney: Good morning. Off to work already?

Jim (checking his watch): I can’t be late, Sydney.

Sydney: No, you can’t, sir. That’s quite a watch.

Jim: It was my grandfather’s. It still works perfectly.

Sydney: That’s remarkable.

Sara Not

Scene 3

Jim and Della’s apartment

N1: Della was poor too.

N2: Her only treasure was her long, beautiful hair.

N3: Della and her neighbor sat at the kitchen table.

Della (counting coins): . . . eighty-five, eighty-six . . . one dollar and eighty-seven cents. No matter how often I count it, the amount never changes.

Mrs. Porter: Well, they say “a penny saved is a penny earned.”

Della: And I’ve earned these pennies, Mrs. Porter. I’ve learned to bargain with everyone. The grocer, the butcher, the milkman—I think they cringe when they see me coming. I’ll take the worst cuts of meat to save a penny. I’ll take the bruised fruit to save two pennies.

Mrs. Porter: Don’t worry, dear. Things will get better for you both. I just know it.

Della (upset): But it’s Christmas Eve. What can I buy Jim with one dollar and eighty-seven cents?

Mrs. Porter: Please don’t cry, Della.

N1: It was then that Della happened to look in the mirror.

N2: She stood there for a moment, a tear dropping on the worn red carpet.

Della: I have an idea, Mrs. Porter.

N3: She quickly pulled her hair into a bun.

Mrs. Porter (worried): Oh, Della, you can’t.

Della: I have to. For Jim. For Christmas.

Scene 4

A shop

N1: Moments later Della arrived at Madame Sophie’s Hair Goods of All Kinds.

Della: Will you buy my hair?

Madame: Take down your bun so I can see it.

N2: Della’s long hair fell down her back.

Madame: What could be so important that you’d give up such lovely hair?

Della: I need money to buy a gift. How much is my hair worth?

Madame: Twenty dollars.

Della: I’ll take it.

N3: For two hours, Della searched the shops for something special to buy for Jim.

Della: He needs a new coat, and every day he goes off to work without gloves to warm his hands. But his gift must be something precious.

N1: As soon as she saw it, she knew it was perfect.

Shopkeeper: How can I help you?

Della: May I see that watch chain?

Shopkeeper: Sure, miss. It’s platinum. Very expensive.

Della: It’s perfect for my husband. With a chain like this on his watch, he could check the time without ever being embarrassed. How much is it?

Shopkeeper: Twenty-one dollars.

Della: I’ll take it.

Sara Not

Scene 5

Jim and Della’s apartment

N2: When Jim came in from work and saw Della, he froze.

Della: Jim, please don’t look at me that way.

Jim: What happened?

Della: I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t go through Christmas without giving you a present.

N3: Jim continued to stare at Della.

Della (almost crying): My hair grows fast, Jim. Please say something. Wait until you see the gift I have for you!

Jim (confused): You’ve cut off your hair.

Della: I did it for you.

Jim (hugging her): I love you no matter what, Della. But when you unwrap this present, you’ll see why I’m so surprised.

N1: Della unwrapped the gift and screamed for joy . . .

N2: Then she cried.

N3: Jim had bought her the combs for her hair that she’d wanted for so long.

Della (sniffling): My hair does grow fast, Jim.

N1: She held his present out to him.

N2: When he opened it, Jim laughed.

Jim: Della, I sold my watch to get the money to buy your combs!

N3: Now they laughed together.

Jim: Let’s put our presents away for now. They’re too nice to use just yet. And now let’s have some dinner.

N1: Today we’ve told you about two people who seem foolish.

N2: They gave up their greatest treasures.

N3: But those who sacrifice their treasures for love are wise.

N1: They are the magi. 

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Can't Miss Teaching Extras
Watch This

Bert and Ernie of “Sesame Street” recreate their very own Gift of the Magi in this heartwarming 9-minute video with a twist ending.

Fun Fact

In order to honor the talent and life of the author O. Henry, his grave in North Carolina is often covered in pennies because of the importance of pennies in The Gift of the Magi.

Watch This

Jim’s pocket watch is one of his most prized possessions and an important piece of this story. Show your students this video about the evolution of the watch, from the sundial to the smartwatch

More About the Article

Content-Area Connections

ELA: Short story

Social-emotional learning: Relationship skills (communication); responsible decision-making (solving problems, reflecting) 

Key Skills

Big idea, key details, making inferences, summarizing, text features, plot, character traits, author’s purpose

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan


Set a Purpose for Reading / Explore Text Features (5 minutes)

  • Look at pages 20-21 with the class. Point to the labels “Play” and “Read-aloud classic tale.” Explain that this play is adapted from a famous short story by O. Henry, an American writer who lived more than a hundred years ago. Some of his stories were about the lives of ordinary people who lived in New York City. His stories often had surprise endings. Ask students to look for the surprise ending of this play.
  • Read the title and subtitle. Explain that when you treasure something, it is very important to you. Then point to the illustration on page 20. What are the people doing? What details tell you the time of year? How can you tell whether this play takes place today or long ago?
  • Direct students to the illustrations on pages 23 and 25. Ask: What has happened to the young woman’s long hair? Explain that students will learn why she cut her hair as they read the play.
  • Call on volunteers to read aloud the Think and Read box on page 21 and the Think and Write box on page 25. Ask students to look for details that describe the lesson Della and Jim learn as they read.

Introduce Vocabulary (15 minutes)

  • While the play does not include definitions of vocabulary terms in the text itself, a Vocabulary Skill Builder online previews challenging terms and allows students to list other terms that are unfamiliar to them. Project or distribute the Skill Builder to go over the terms. You may also play our Vocabulary Slideshow, where images and audio help students with comprehension and fluency.
  • Highlighted terms: sacrificed, pocket watch, shabby, remarkable, bargain, cringe, platinum


Bridging Decoding and Comprehension

  • Storyworks Jr. plays provide a perfect opportunity for students to build fluency.
  • Remind students that the words in parentheses after a character’s name are stage directions. These words tell a reader or actor how to say a line or perform an action in the play. Point to the words checking his watch in column 2 on page 22, and the word upset in column 1 on page 23. Read aloud the dialogue with the appropriate expression or action. Have students repeat after you.


Reading and Unpacking the Text

  • Before reading: Point out the Characters box on page 21. Remind students that this is a list of all the characters in the play. The narrators describe some of the actions and events in the play. Ask: What does N1 stand for?
  • Direct students to the scene headings on pages 21-24. These headings are followed by a few words that explain the setting, or when and where the scene takes place. What do students learn about the setting of this play in the scene heading on page 21?
  • First read: Continue reading the play as a class.
  • Second read: Project or distribute the Close-Reading Questions. Discuss them as a class, rereading lines or scenes as necessary.
  • Separate students into groups to discuss the Critical-Thinking Question. Then have groups share their answers with the class. 

Close-Reading Questions (30 minutes)

  • Read Scene 1. What do you learn about the magi? (key details) They were wise men who lived thousands of years ago and invented the idea of giving presents at Christmastime.
  • Why does Jim say, “I may be poor, but I’m the luckiest man in all of New York!”? (making inferences) He considers himself very fortunate because he is married to Della.
  • Read Scene 3. Why is Della so upset? (summarizing) Although she tried to save money, she only has one dollar and eighty-seven cents.
  • Read Scene 4. How does the picture on page 23 help you imagine what happens in Madame’s shop? (text features) The picture shows Madame measuring Della’s long hair before she cuts it. Explain that people would sell their hair to be made into wigs.
  • What does Della decide to buy for Jim? (plot) She buys a watch chain for his pocket watch. What does this decision show about her character? (character traits) She is kind and thoughtful. She wants Jim to have a beautiful watch chain so his old one won’t embarrass him.
  • In Scene 5, why is Jim so surprised when he realizes that Della has cut her hair? (plot) He bought her the hair combs she wanted. Why does he laugh when he opens Della’s gift? She gave him a chain for his pocket watch, but he sold it to buy a gift for her. He’s happy even though their gifts didn’t work out because they show he and Della love each other.

Critical-Thinking Question (10 minutes)

  • At the beginning and end of the play, the Narrators say that Della and Jim might “seem foolish.” Does the author really think they’re foolish? Explain your answer. (author’s purpose) The author doesn’t think they’re foolish. He shows that they gave up their treasures, but not for a foolish reason. They both sacrificed for each other.


Exploring the Big Idea (30 minutes)

  • Have students complete the Big Idea Skill Builder. Have them respond to the Think and Write box on page 25. They can identify the lesson that Della and Jim learn in the first sentence of their paragraphs. Play details should support this main idea.

Differentiate and Customize
For Small Groups

Divide your class into groups and assign each group one scene from the play to perform in class. As students rehearse, remind them to pay attention to the stage directions in parentheses and the punctuation mark at the end of each line of dialogue. Have each group perform the play live for the class.

For Struggling Readers

Read the play aloud while students follow along. Help them identify the setting of each scene and an important plot event that takes place in each one. Use students’ answers to create a timeline of the plot.

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to write journal entries from either Della’s or Jim’s point of view. The journals should express the characters’ feelings about the events in the play. Students can share their writing in small groups.