In 2005 when Jason F. Wright wrote a little Christmas story about love, finding oneself, and filling a jar with spare change and giving it away, he had no idea what he had started.
"The Christmas Jar," published by Shadow Mountain, became a New York Times bestseller, and what began as an experiment by the author's family has turned into a national movement that has spread to all 50 states and at least nine foreign countries.
"The movement has far outgrown the book," said Wright on a recent visit to Salt Lake City. "Now when people talk of Christmas jars, they are talking about the movement, not the book, and I couldn't be more proud."
He hoped that story would touch readers, of course, "but I never expected this. It has far overshadowed the book."
Because the jars are given anonymously, it is hard to tell exactly how many have been given away over the past four years. But Wright has a Web site — www.christmasjars.com — where people can contact him with their stories. He has heard from both donors and receivers of the jars, and although the stories differ, they all share one thing in common: The jar has changed lives.
What's also been interesting, he said, is that it has become a year-round phenomenon. "There are no rules. If you see a need in July, you can give your jar away in July and start another one for Christmas. The whole thing has taken on a life of its own, and that's pretty neat."
The Christmas jar movement has impacted his own life in myriad ways, but one he never expected is that he is back with year with a sequel, "Christmas Jars Reunion" (Shadow Mountain, $17.95) and with a children's book, "Penny's Christmas Jar Miracle" (Shadow Mountain, $17.95, illustrated by Ben Sowards).
"I never thought there would be a sequel. I know some authors write a book with that in mind, but I thought I'd told the story and was done."
What happened, he said, was that he "heard from so many people who had fallen in love with Hope (the main character in the first story) and wanted to know what happened to her and where she is now, that I thought I owed it to the fans of the book to finish her story."
In the first book, Hope, a journalist who was adopted as a baby, finds and develops a relationship with her birth mother as well as a loving community that surrounds Chuck's Chicken 'n Biscuits diner.
The sequel opens with Chuck's funeral, Hope's determination to carry on the Christmas jar tradition in a big way — in fact, she's set a goal of placing 1,001 Christmas jars. But over the course of the book, Hope learns important lessons about quantity and quality, about giving and receiving, and about love — with the help of a stranger named Al Allred, an ex-semi-pro baseball player named Clark Maxwell and a special little girl called Queen.
Each chapter heading in the book contains a real story of a Christmas jar. "I wasn't sure the publishers would let me mix fact and fiction like that, but they did," said Wright. "I'm so glad, because those stories show how lives are affected by this simple act."
"Penny's Christmas Jar Miracle" tells the story of a little girl whose Christmas jar blesses the entire neighborhood.
"I'm especially excited about the children's book," said Wright, who lives in Virginia with his wife and four children. "It's one I can read to my own kindergartner."
Wright talks in a lot of elementary schools all over the country, "and it's hard to explain the novel to a third grader. But this book — one of the greatest thrills of my life as a writer was to read to a class of kindergartners this magical story, to look down at the wide-eyed 5- and 6-year-olds who got it, who really got the story."
He hopes "children will jump up, go find a jar — even if they have to empty out the pickles — fill it and become part of all this. They are the ones who will carry it on in 20 or 30 years."
More exciting news is that "The Christmas Jar" is in development for a film, "and we're sponsoring a contest to win a walk-on role in the movie.
All you have to do is take a picture of you and your jar — or your dog and your jar — or whomever and your jar and e-mail or snail-mail it in. The winner will get to go on the set, we hope in early 2010."
In between the Christmas Jars books, Wright has had other stories to tell. His "Wednesday Letters" was also a New York Times bestseller; last year there was "Recovering Charles." And in March, he will have a book coming out with Penguin Books called "The Cross Gardener."
It's the story of a man "who has had more than his share of personal loss and become obsessed with roadside crosses. It's all about the fact that no one dies alone."
Now a full-time writer and sometime-political commentator for newspapers, radio and TV, Wright looks at his writing and says, "I think I'm getting better all the time. I'll never be confused with Hemingway or Tolstoy, but that's not who I am. I think I am a good storyteller, and I'm OK with that. And if I can inspire just one person to fill a Christmas jar and give it away, that's good enough."
His biggest joy is that "I get to hear the stories first. There's nothing better than opening an email from someone I don't know, will probably never meet, from Utah or California or Vermont, and they want to tell me how they opened their door and saw the jar, and now they can keep their lights on or put a train under the tree or just know that someone cares about them. They pour their souls into the e-mail, and I see the tears. No words call tell how that feels."
Start a Christmas jar
If you'd like to do you own Christmas jar, it's very simple:
1. Get a big, fat empty jar and put it on your kitchen counter.
2. Every day, empty your spare change into it.
3. When it is full (or even if it is not) give it away anonymously on or near Christmas Eve (or another appropriate time).
4. Start another jar.
5. For more ideas, visit www.christmasjars.com
e-mail: [email protected]