Della, of the beautiful hair, wanted to give her husband a gift to express her unconditional love for him. Her husband, Jim, whose only possession was a magnificent gold pocket watch from his grandfather, wanted the same thing for her.
So the stage is set for the wonderful short story, "The Gift of the Magi," by O. Henry.
(In the story, Della sells her long, beautiful hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch, while Jim sells his watch to buy her an exquisite set of combs.)
It describes a memorable Christmas of magic and wonder, filled with extravagant love and surprising joy set in an otherwise dreary and hopeless world.
In our current recession, with friends and family losing jobs and homes, with money running out and Christmas expectations always high, we need a deeper, more "grown-up" understanding of Christmas.
This year, many of us have an undercurrent of fear about growing debts, shrinking income and even embarrassment at not being able to provide the traditional gifts.
Children, used to getting what they want, will likely be deeply disappointed and perhaps downright belligerent. Parents and friends will carry a heavy heart wishing they could do more for the ones they love.
More than one family will break under the stress and become filled with anger at the people they love the most.
Yet for Della and Jim, and all of us who read their story regularly on Christmas Eve, we discover that the deepest meaning of Christmas becomes clearer in such times as these. We learn and relearn a lesson that is timeless.
We discover a Christmas for adults when we remember that the coldest and shortest days of the European winter were chosen to celebrate Christ's birth, proclaiming hope in the midst of the darkness.
We discover a Christmas for adults when we remember that in place of parties and overindulgence, God's greatest gift in Jesus Christ invites us to forgiveness, joy, lifelong meaning and prayer.
We discover a Christmas for adults when we remember how fear filled the Roman Empire and how God chose to turn upside down the normal notions of a distant God into a God willing to join in our personal struggle in this world.
We discover a Christmas for adults when we look at the pain of our own lives, the darkness creeping into our souls and realize that the God of all creation really does love us, unconditionally.
We discover a Christmas for adults when we realize that all our activities and gift-giving, all our good cheer and family gatherings, all our music that touches our souls is for but one purpose: to point us to this challenging mystery of a deeply loving God.
St. Paul writes: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." (1st Corinthians 13:11)
I invite us all to look beyond the child-oriented Christmas to an adult one, to see a love so deep and profound that the word "sacrifice" is wholly inadequate.
Together let us engage a God willing to choose a manger, surrounded by unlikely people much like us in which to be revealed.
We must allow Christmas to be grown-up, adult and challenging, so that we may confront our fears and frustrations, our anxiety and loneliness with love, forgiveness rebirth and a second chance.
Let us hear this adult message of Christmas:
"When you have lost your way, I will come and find you."
"When you are alone in the dark, I will be with you."
"When you feel betrayed by everything and everyone, I will still love you, and seek to rescue you."
This is the Christmas we need to recapture, year after year. This is the strength in the darkness, the guidance when we are lost, the light when our eyes cannot pierce the enveloping darkness, the hope when all our human hope is gone.
"The People who have walked in darkness,
have seen a great light,
those who live in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined." (Isaiah 9:2)
This adult Christmas is not about gift-getting - that's for the kids.
This adult Christmas is all about gift-giving just as God has given Jesus Christ to us. It's a gifting that looks beyond all our flaws and our self-inflicted loneliness, and gives us a life of overcoming joy.
May your Christmas be filled with such a Godly, Christ-filled love. May we all be changed by this kind of Christmas.
The Rev. Dr. Terry Van Hook is lead pastor of the Lancaster United Methodist Church, www.LancasterUnited.org.
This column was first published in the Antelope Valley News on Wed., Dec.