When Jason F. Wright comes home and walks into his Woodstock kitchen, he fishes any change he finds out of his pocket and drops it into a jar on his kitchen counter. The author of the New York Times bestselling novel “Christmas Jars” still walks the walk, even as a long-awaited feature film adaptation of his book is reaching theaters in a special event on Monday evening.
The one-night-only Fathom Events screening will be offered in about 830 theaters across the country, including Charlottesville’s Regal Stonefield Stadium 14.
“It’s more than just a film on November 4; it’s more of an experience,” said Wright, a Charlottesville native.
What makes the Christmas Jars donation phenomenon explored in his book different from other kinds of holiday giving is that it is a deliberate, thoughtful approach throughout the year. Donors start setting aside spare change in empty jars after the holidays and keep adding to them all year long. By the time Christmas Eve rolls around, there’s enough change or bills in the jar to make a difference for someone going through a rough patch, and it’s time to leave the filled jars anonymously where the recipients can find them.
Wright said he values the stories left on his website by Christmas Jars donors who say the practice has been a valuable Christmas tradition for their families. Many of them are proud of the ways in which their children have grown up internalizing a daily responsibility to look out for others. One family from Kentucky has been taking part in the Christmas Jar tradition for the past 14 years and keeping him updated on what the practice has meant, Wright said.
Recipients, meanwhile, have moved him with stories of how discovering the jars helped them at just the right time.
“I hear stories every day, all year long, from people who have been praying for a miracle. They’re losing hope,” he said. “Just when they’re just about out of hope, they come back and find a jar in their cubicle or on their porch.
“The message is even more important — that they are not alone, and there is hope.”
Wright’s “Christmas Jars” novel follows reporter Hope Jensen as she tracks down the secret behind the jars full of cash that mysteriously appear on the doorsteps of people going through tough times. Since the book came out in time for Christmas 2005, it’s “still going strong — almost 1 million copies,” Wright said.
The real-life inspiration came from a holiday tradition he and his wife started in 2004.
“It started as a family experiment,” Wright said. He and his wife, Kodi, put an ordinary jar on the counter in the middle of October 2004. Every time they had pocket change, it went into the jar at the end of the day.
“We filled it up through Christmas Eve,” he said. “We went and gave it away anonymously on Christmas Eve — put it on the doorstep, rang the bell and hid.”
For Wright, the best Christmas gift that year was “seeing the looks on my kids’ faces when they got it that it wasn’t all about them.
“The very next day, my wife put a jar back out on the counter.”
What makes the Christmas Jars phenomenon special is that “this isn’t an annual donation. It’s accumulated goodness all year long,” Wright said.
“That’s what it feels like. It’s a small act of humility all year long. It’s an opportunity to pause and reflect. If everyone paused for a few seconds every day to think about someone other than the face in the mirror, the world might be a better place.”
Getting the film to the screen took a while — 13 years, to be exact. On Christmas Eve 2004, Wright’s oldest child was 8.
“She is now married, with a baby,” he said.
He and his wife also had a 5-year-old and a 10-month-old at the time. Their youngest, now 12, wasn’t even born until 2007. Thanks to the family experiment, all of the Wright children grew up with the idea that a little heartfelt effort each day could make a significant difference in someone else’s life.
Wright also hopes that recipients who find the jars will realize that they don’t need to feel isolated by life’s obstacles and challenges.
“They’re going to see that we have been serving them and thinking about them — even before we even knew who they were,” he said.
Keeping a jar literally on the kitchen counter all year isn’t always the most practical approach for many busy families. Sometimes, when people are speaking with Wright about their own Christmas Jars traditions, “they almost apologize because they aren’t doing it right,” he said, adding that the suggestions on his website, jasonfwright.com, offer room for personal approaches to putting aside the money throughout the year. “There’s no right way; there’s your way. It has become a Christmas tradition for so many people.”
Wright’s sense of gratitude keeps his hometown close to his heart.
Wright’s own journey began when he published his first book at age 17, while still a student at Albemarle High School. Writing the poems in “Sitting on the Dock,” published in 1988, helped Wright process the difficult emotions he felt after his father’s death from cancer. Being surrounded by encouragement helped him find his way.
Fifteen books later, with a feature film based on his most well-known novel now becoming a reality, he remains grateful to his hometown, which he calls “that community that has always been there for me. Every book signing, people just show up. Charlottesville’s home for me, and it’s still home for me after all these years.
“If my life were a book, Charlottesville would be the main character. I’ve lived a lot of places since I left in 1989, and Charlottesville is still home.”