Picture it. You’ve spent hours crafting the perfect lesson. It’s engaging. It’s rigorous. It covers all the standards. You’re super excited. And then you hear the dreaded words – “We’ve already read this.” Dun dun dun. What to do now? Continue with the lesson and hope it’s good enough that they won’t mind reading the story again? Scramble frantically looking for another text?
My fellow high school ELA teachers know this feeling all too well. Many of the “classics” or “canon” are taught at multiple levels, leaving us with the inevitable “We read this last year” or “We read this in 7th grade” or “We have to read this again?”
Once such culprit? “The Gift of the Magi.” The heartwarming of story of Jim and Della, a poor couple with a measly $1.87 to their name, who each sacrifice their greatest possession to buy the other a Christmas present.
Now, I love the story as much as the next person. But that’s the issue. So does everyone else. And why not? It’s short, it’s accessible, it’s great for teaching irony. And, if you’re anything like me, you could teach it in your sleep, which is certainly a plus as the weariness of December kicks in.
What if, this year, you supplemented the tried and true with something else? Or maybe even ditched it altogether in favor of other texts with similar topics and themes?
I present to you – 9 texts to teach alongside (or in lieu of) “The Gift of the Magi”.
- “Federigo’s Falcon” by Boccaccio : The story of a young man who falls into poverty by spending all of his money trying to woo the woman he loves (who doesn’t give him the time of day) and is left with only his prized falcon to keep him company. Following her husband’s death, the woman and her son move to the countryside and right next door. The son takes a liking to the falcon and, when he becomes ill, asks for the falcon to keep him company, claiming the falcon’s presence will cure him. Monna (said object of Federigo’s affection) invites herself to dinner. Federigo, anxious that he has nothing to serve the woman he loves, kills his falcon. After eating, Monna reveals the reason for her visit, Federigo cries. The son dies and Monna is forced to remarry. She chooses Federigo because of his sacrifice. Links to “The Gift of the Magi” – sacrifice of prized possession for the loved one; irony
- Stave One from A Christmas Carol (aka “Marley’s Ghost”) by Charles Dickens: The opening to this classic Christmas tale of redemption introduces the reader to Ebenezer Scrooge and sets the stage for the rest of story. Readers meet Scrooge, the epitome of a miser, and hear the ominous warning from his (dead) partner. Links to “The Gift of the Magi” – discuss the true spirit of Christmas – money and possessions, or time with those we love?
- Stave Three from A Christmas Carol (aka “The Second of the Three Spirits”): Keeping with this class, stave (or chapter) 3 is another strong option. (Honestly, you could really do the whole thing, but time constraints and whatnot). In this chapter, Scrooge is visited by the second of the three spirits, commonly known as The Ghost of Christmas Present. Having just witnessed a flashback of less than optimal moments in his life, Scrooge is returned to the present (sometime in the 1800s, exact year unknown) to witness how those closest to him are celebrating the holidays. Includes a glimpse into what his family really thinks of him. And gives us the famous line, “God bless us every one!” Links to “The Gift of the Magi” – compare the themes and morals. What do both texts teach us about family and the act of giving?
- “The Third Wish” by Joan Aiken: A lesser-known text, this story centers around Mr. Peters who, after saving the King of the Forest (in the shape of a swan), is granted three wishes. Since he’s lonely, Mr. Peters wishes for a wife “as beautiful as the forest” (par. 9). His wish is granted, with one catch – his wife is actually a swan who was turned into a human. Despite Mr. Peters’ best efforts, his wife is never truly happy, so he uses his second wish to turn her back into a swan. Fast forward. Mr. Peters spends lots of time talking to “his two swans” (aka his former wife and her sister) and refuses to move somewhere drier, even when his health starts to fail. After he dies peacefully in his sleep, he is discovered holding a withered leaf (the last of his three wishes) and a white feather. Links to “The Gift of the Magi” – compare the themes of the two texts. What do each of them say about sacrifice? Pair with “Federigo’s Falcon” as well to compare three texts from three different time periods (and cultures).
The next few stories may not be tied thematically to “The Gift of the Magi”, but should be solid contenders if you’re looking to teach a Christmasy text that’s not canon.
- “Christmas Eve” by Washington Irving: Warm and fuzzy aren’t exactly words one usually associates with Washington Irving of “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and “The Devil and Tom Walker” fame. However, he breaks from this usual Gothic style to pen a story of a pleasant Christmas Eve spent among friends. And to introduce readers in 1820 to the now commonplace traditions of Christmas caroling, mistletoe, and Yule logs. While there may not be a lot to delve into on the analysis front, this story could provide a nice change of pace from your typical December texts.
- “The Christmas Banquet” by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Another Gothic author who ventures into the Christmas arena. Unlike Irving, however, Hawthorne remains true to his roots, focusing not on the warm and fuzzy Christmas traditions, but the misery of the human spirit. In this tale, ten miserable loners gather every Christmas to battle it out for the title of the most miserable and bitter. The party changes every year, with one exception – a man named Gervayse Hastings. At first glance, Hastings seems out of place in the group; nonetheless, he is the only fixture throughout decades of the banquet. In true Hawthorne fashion, the reader is left with more questions than answers. Pair with A Christmas Carol for a discussion on misers and the changes they undergo – or don’t.
- “Reginald’s Christmas Revel” by Saki: Beset known for “The Interlopers” and “The Open Window”, Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro) also penned the vignette (very short story) “Reginald’s Christmas Revels”, examining what it’s like to spend Christmas among very dull people. Like the protagonist in “The Open Window”, our protagonist here – Reginald- has a bit of a mischievious streak. This story is the perfect quick read.
- “The Dead” by James Joyce: Last but not least, we have Joyce – the master of stream of consciousness and all disregard for punctuation (I’m looking at you Ulysses). The longest story on the list, “The Dead” comes from Dubliners, a collection of stories about life in turn-of-the-century Dublin, and is the longest in the collection. The story revolves around Gabriel Conroy and his wife, a Christmas party, a significant event in Mrs. Conroy’s life (hidden from her husband), and Gabriel’s observation of humankind’s mortality.