It was some 16 years ago when Jason F Wright and his family first started the 'Christmas Jar' tradition, a move which has since sparked a best-selling book and film - not to mention a worldwide movement.

Speaking to Sight from his home in Virginia in the US earlier this month, Wright recalls that he was living in Washington DC in 2004 where he was working at a political thinktank.

“Maybe it’s not a surprise that it’s hard to work in politics in America, that it kills the holiday spirit…So I was just kind of struggling a little bit and I had a really special kind of conversation with my wife [Kodi] one night in mid-October about just [whether we] could we do to start celebrating Christmas now – maybe that’s the best way to put it – and not wait until December 25th,” he says.

So after a discussion that lasted several hours, the couple came up with the idea of placing a jar on their kitchen counter and putting their spare change in it. They told their three children - then aged eight, five and just a few months old [they later had another son] - the following morning about their new initiative.

“It sort of took over our lives there for the next eight weeks in a really exciting way,” says Wright. “And every single time we put change in the jar, we thought about someone besides ourselves and looked beyond our own world to the needs of other people. We didn’t even know who would get the jar until 30 minutes before we delivered it. But when we took the family and dropped it on a doorstep, our lives we changed forever.”

Jason F Wright

Author Jason F Wright. PICTURE: Supplied. 

Released in 2005, the book - which tells the fictional story of Hope Jensen, an aspiring reporter who discovers the secret behind the mysterious Christmas Jar tradition in which jars filled with cash are left on the doorsteps of people in need - became a The New York Times best-seller. But the film, which is directed by Jonathan Wright (no relation) and stars Jeni Ross as Hope and Markian Tarasiuk as her love interest Ian Maxwell, took a little longer with its release in the US last year (and in Australia on 3rd December this year). 

Wright, who had some involvement in the making of the film - something for which he says he will be “forever grateful”, says he was “overwhelmed” by the reception the film has received.

Christmas Jars promotional

A promotional poster for the film.

 

"[T]o finally see it come to light and to see people coming out to support the film last year…was an overwhelming experience. I still can’t watch it without tearing up and it’s not just because the movie’s great, it was because it was such a ride to get from a book I wrote in my basement in bathroom to a film, quite a journey.”

- Author Jason F Wright.

“The film was a 14 year journey – we optioned it the year the book came out and we thought we’d have a film in 2006, then 2007, and then 2010 and it just took, as sometimes it does…a lot longer than we thought it would,” he recalls.

“So to finally see it come to light and to see people coming out to support the film last year…was an overwhelming experience. I still can’t watch it without tearing up and it’s not just because the movie’s great, it was because it was such a ride to get from a book I wrote in my basement in bathroom to a film. Quite a journey.”

The Christmas Jars movement which was sparked by the book’s publication has since seen millions given away both in the US and around the world. 

Wright, who has gone on to author numerous other books and also works as a columnist, says one of the most common questions he’s asked about the Christmas Jars story is how did his family decide who to give the money to. Describing himself as a “big believer” in involving all the family in decisions, he says when it came time to make a decision, he and his wife sat with the kids at their kitchen table and made a list of all the people who might benefit from it.

They settled on a family they knew from church – Wright is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. The family's son was heading away overseas on some church-related work and had to pay his own way.

“The money was a blessing to them but it was probably a message too - you know, they were about to say goodbye to their son [who was] to leave the country for an extended period of time and they were a little lonely. So the jar goes on their porch and the rest is history.”

Wright says while the family stood up in church several weeks later and thanked the anonymous donors who had left the jar, it was only after the book, which he started writing several days after that Christmas, came out the following year, that the mother directly asked them whether they were the family who’d left the jar.

Wright says he and his wife hedged their answers – “we convince ourselves they have no idea” – but does add that he named one of the main characters in the book – Hannah – after their daughter (in fact, Wright says he’s named all of the characters in the book after people from their lives - whether a neighbour, a cousin, a sibling - a practice he’s emulated in all his books "to give just a little love to people in my life who have been influential.”)

But the Christmas Jar phenomenon for Wright and his family hasn’t just been about passing on the blessing to others. Wright recounts that about a year after the book came out and he'd left his job at the DC thinktank, he found himself without a job and, financially, things were tight.

“And a jar and a Christmas dinner showed up on our doorstep,” he says. “I’m 99 per cent sure it was from my former co-worker at this political thinktank I worked for but, it was pretty interesting to come full circle and be a recipient myself.”

Wright says both experiences – giving and receiving the jars – are “very special for different reasons”. 

“They’re both very humbling,” he says. “When you receive that kind of assistance – and it was a couple of hundred dollars plus another $100 worth of food, so it was not insignificant – that was a deeply humbling thing, deeply humbling. 

“And then to give a jar away to someone who is at the end of hope – whether their need is emotional or financial or spiritual - [or] to have a stranger hug you in a gas station parking lot with tears streaming down their face because your jar is the reason they’ll have dinner that night, that is a deeply humbling experience. So they’re both so special but different.”

Christmas Jars1

Jeni Ross stars as Hope Jensen and Markian Tarasiuk as Ian Maxwell in 'Christmas Jars'. 

The Christmas Jar movement – of which Wright, “for better or worse”, is the spokesperson – now spans the globe and has a dedicated website through which Wright is sent stories all through the year (they usually gather pace in the couple of months before Christmas).

“For me, the most beautiful thing is that now, some people have been doing it so long, as soon as their name pops up…on the website, I already know who it is…And I have a number of families like that…These aren't readers anymore, these are friends who have made the tradition part of their annual celebration.”

One of the stories he recounts most often is that of a young Utah boy named Cameron Birch who was dying of cancer. He was in his last days when his two older brothers found two giant pickle jars stuffed with more than $US400 and a copy of the book and the note left at their house.

“And that young man, when given the chance to do whatever he wanted to do in his dying wish with that money…he said: ‘We’re going to pay this forward. We’re going to be fine but there are a lot of kids at this cancer centre where I am being treated that aren’t, so can we use this money to buy toys for them and replace some of the toys that are falling apart in the hospice play room’,” says Wright.

“And I’ve since come to know the family well – I flew out and met him about two days before he died which was just about six weeks after Christmas…That’s one of my favourite stories but there are so, so many and all of them are so different.”

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Wright, who says he never imagined that the movement would grow so large, adds that some of the most interesting stories have come about when families who have been collecting money in a jar realise, after falling into hardship, that they were doing so for themselves.

“And it’s a hard thing for them to do and they feel guilty [but] I’ve gotten two dozen anecdotes through the years from those people who said they just felt like 'God knew all year long that we were going to be in a pinch and without knowing it, we’re the family that gets the Christmas Jar'. And they were just overwhelmed.”

He’s also heard from hundreds of people who, having received a jar one year, decided to give away a jar the following Christmas.

What about Wright’s own view of Christmas? The author says while Christmas has always been an important part of his life growing up, his experience of the season changed when, while he was still a junior in high school, his father died just before Christmas.

“That sort of dampened Christmas for me in a lot of ways and…it took a long time for me to sort of find colour in Christmas. And…filling this jar on our counter was a big piece of that.”

Wright says while Americans tend to view Christmas as a 24 hour holiday that is “opened and enjoyed and then the waste was tossed in the trash and you start the clock for another 364 days”, he doesn’t believe that’s what Christ intended for the commemoration of His birth.

“So for me the Christmas Jar has become, in my own personal life, a way to celebrate a little bit every day of the year. And obviously for a lot of people around the world, I think, they’ve found the same benefit.”

Christmas Jars2

A scene of a Christmas celebration in the film, 'Christmas Jars'.

Wright’s family, which now has a permanent jar on their counter, says dumping out and counting the money collected on the day they give it away has become an important tradition in his family (although he notes that some people are against the idea of counting it before giving it away – “my dear brother, who I love very much, thinks that it’s sacrilege that we count our jar to see how much is in i," he notes).

Some years they might give away several jars and in others, a single jar.

“For us it’s really a spiritual experience,” Wright says. “We ponder and pray and we take it pretty seriously.”

He’s hopeful it will also become an important experience for those who see the film.

“If people see the movie and go home and move on with their lives, they’ve missed the boat. I want people to see the movie, go home and then take a jar, put it on their counter and start filling it up with a little bit of money and a little bit of love.”

Christmas Jars is being released in Australia on 3rd December. Follow this link to find cinemas.