The story begins with Della despairing over the meager amount of money she’s managed to save over the past few months by pinching pennies. She had been hoping to save enough to buy her husband Jim a worthy Christmas present. Della suddenly goes to gaze at her reflection in a window, letting her hair fall to its full length below her knee. Della’s brown hair and Jim’s gold watch that had been passed down from his grandfather are the couple’s most prized possessions.
Della runs to a hair shop and sells her hair for twenty dollars. Then she uses the money to buy Jim a simple platinum watch chain. The chain is described as possessing “quietness and value,” like Jim.
Della returns home to fix her hair into curls and make dinner. When Jim walks into the door, he freezes, staring at Della’s hair. Della tells him that she did it in order to buy a proper Christmas present for him. Jim snaps out of his shock, hugs Della, and throws a package on the table. He explains that no haircut could make him love her any less, but that he was surprised because of the present that he bought for her. Della opens the package to find expensive tortoiseshell combs for her long hair. She’s ecstatic for a moment before she begins crying, and Jim has to comfort her.
Suddenly, Della remembers her present to Jim, and asks to see Jim’s watch so that she could put the new chain on it. Jim sits back on the couch and smiles, then admits that he sold his watch in order to buy the combs.
The narrator wraps up the story by describing the magi who invented the art of giving Christmas presents. He compares Della and Jim to these wise men, and concludes that of all those who give gifts, these two are the wisest.