Listen to a Heartfelt Musical Retelling of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” with Hanky in Hand

It’s that time of year when cer­tain songs con­spire with cer­tain moods to hit you right in the ol’ brisket.

The feel­ing is volup­tuous, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly unpleas­ant, pro­vid­ed there’s a bath­room stall or spare bed­room should you need to flee a par­ty like Cin­derel­la, as some old chest­nut threat­ens to turn you into a blub­ber­ing mess.

Let the kid­dies deck the halls, jin­gle bells, and prance about with Rudolph and Frosty. The best sec­u­lar songs for grown ups are the ones with a thick cur­rent of long­ing just under the sur­face, a yearn­ing for those who aren’t here with us, for a bet­ter future, for the way we were…

There’s got to be some hope in the bal­ance though, some sweet­ness to savor as we mud­dle through.

(Judy Gar­land famous­ly stonewalled on the first ver­sion of “Have Your­self a Mer­ry Lit­tle Christ­mas” until lyri­cist Hugh Mar­tin agreed to light­en things up a bit. In the end, both got what they want­ed. She got her update:

Have your­self a mer­ry lit­tle Christ­mas

Let your heart be light 

Next year all our trou­bles will be out of sight

But the ten­sion between the promise of a bet­ter tomor­row and her emo­tion­al deliv­ery holds a place for Hugh­es’ appeal­ing­ly dark sen­ti­ment:

Have your­self a mer­ry lit­tle Christ­mas

It may be your last 

Next year we may all be liv­ing in the past

I’ll Be Home for Christ­mas” man­ages to ring some of those same bells.

As a rule, the oldies are the good­ies in this depart­ment.

More recent bids by Cold­play and Tay­lor Swift have failed to achieve the prop­er mix of hope and hope­less­ness.

It’s a dif­fi­cult bal­ance, but singer-song­writer Ellia Bisker pulls it off beau­ti­ful­ly, above, by turn­ing to O. Henry’s endur­ing short sto­ry, “The Gift of the Magi.”

Accom­pa­ny­ing her­self on ukulele as she per­forms under her par­lor rock pseu­do­nym, Sweet Soubrette, Bisker’s sound is both sun­ny and plain­tive. It’s an appro­pri­ate choice for a young bride who parts with her most valu­able asset, in order to give her cher­ished hus­band a “wor­thy” gift:

I want to give you some­thing that I can’t afford,

Let you believe with me we’re real­ly not so poor.

You see that pack­age wait­ing under­neath the tree? 

It’s just a token of how much you mean to me.

(Spoil­er for the hand­ful of peo­ple unfa­mil­iar with this tale: he does the same, thus negat­ing the util­i­ty of both cost­ly presents.)

In an inter­view with Open Cul­ture, Bisker praised the O. Hen­ry story’s iron­ic sym­me­try:

It’s a lit­tle like the death scene in Romeo & Juli­et, but with­out the tragedy. The sto­ry itself still feels sur­pris­ing­ly fresh, despite the peri­od details. It has more humor and sym­pa­thy to it than sen­ti­ment. It sur­pris­es you with real emo­tion. 

The Romeo and Juli­et com­par­i­son is apt. The sto­ry cov­ers a time peri­od so brief that the new­ly­weds’ feel­ings for each oth­er nev­er stray from purest won­der and admi­ra­tion.

Bisker taps into those feel­ings in a way Joni Mitchell’s mean­der­ing, unre­leased take on the same mate­r­i­al did not.

The Squir­rel Nut Zip­pers also took a crack at musi­cal­iz­ing “The Gift of the Magi,” but the sound is more Ozarks than shab­by, urban New York, with back­ground har­monies hint­ing that the young cou­ple may be part of a larg­er sup­port net­work.

Bisker’s song starts, as it ends, with a pair of young, broke lovers who only have eyes for each oth­er.

Let’s not for­get O. Hen­ry’s part­ing words:

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. 

Enjoy this musi­cal gift, read­ers. The artist has made the track free for down­load­ing, though per­haps you could scratch up a few coins in thanks, with­out pawn­ing your watch or cut­ting your hair.

Read O. Hen­ry’s short sto­ry “The Gift of the Magi” here.

Lis­ten to Ellia Bisker’s “Gift of the Magi,” and four oth­er tracks off of Sweet Soubrette’s name-your-own-price Hap­py Hol­i­days album here.

We were young and broke, but we didn’t care 

You had your pock­et­watch, I had my gold­en hair 

We were just scrap­ing by, wait­ing to make it big 

I was an ingénue, you were just a kid 

But it was Christ­mas eve, didn’t know what to do 

How could I hope to buy some kind of gift for you 

Ain’t got no trust fund hon, ain’t got no sav­ings bond 

Just got my stu­dent loans, the clothes that I’ve got on 

I want to give you some­thing that I can’t afford 

Let you believe with me we’re real­ly not so poor 

You see that pack­age wait­ing under­neath the tree 

It’s just a token of how much you mean to me 

Frank­in­cense (here’s what I wish, what I imag­ine) 

Gold and myrrh (that I could give, give what you are worth) 

Put them in (this is the gift, gift of the magi) 

The manger (it’s not a frac­tion of all that you deserve) 

I used to win­dow shop, I would nev­er tell 

There was a pair of combs made out of tor­toise­shell 

I tried them on one time, put up my long long hair 

If I were rich and famous that’s what I would wear 

You wore your father’s watch, it was a vin­tage piece 

It made you feel like fifty mil­lion bucks at least 

But it was fas­tened with a flim­sy nick­el chain 

You want­ed bet­ter but you said it’s all the same 

I want to give a token to you of my love 

A lit­tle lux­u­ry to keep your spir­its up 

I’ll cut and sell my hair, the only gold I’ve got 

To buy a gold­en chain for your pock­et­watch 

Frank­in­cense (here’s what I wish, what I imag­ine) 

Gold and myrrh (that I could give, give what you are worth) 

Put them in (this is the gift, gift of the magi) 

The manger (it’s not a frac­tion of all that you deserve) 

I can’t for­get the look that flashed across your face 

When I walked into our apart­ment late that day 

And I took off my hat revealed a pix­ie cut 

Gave you a lit­tle box told you to open up 

You pulled out the gold­en chain that lay inside 

Were you about to laugh were you about to cry 

You said I shouldn’t have, because your watch was sold 

So you could buy for me a pret­ty pair of combs

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of The Pogues’ “Fairy­tale of New York,” the Boozy Bal­lad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christ­mas Songs of All Time

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City this Jan­u­ary as host of  The­ater of the Apes book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Rebecca says:

    Ella Bisker, with quirky and unbe­liev­ably appeal­ing alche­my, trans­forms an ancient hol­i­day into some­thing new and vital — - fun, infec­tious­ly tune­ful, and both sly­ly wit­ty and quite touch­ing­ly sin­cere. Amaz­ing!
    P.S. Her music reminds me of the best of Uncle Bon­sai, which is the high­est praise in the world.

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