SALT LAKE CITY — Director Jonathan Wright knows a thing or two about Christmas movies.

Skim through a list of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies and you’ll see his name several times. The genre isn’t new to him.

But when he read the script for the movie “Christmas Jars,” he was taken aback. 

The story of 22-year-old Hope Jensen, an aspiring reporter who uncovers the mystery behind jars that are filled to the brim with money and anonymously delivered to people in need, didn’t feel like a made-for-TV movie. It felt like a big-screen feature. Wright wanted to do this story justice. 

So earlier this year, while on set in Ottawa, Ontario, the director gathered his cast together. 

“‘We’ve got a chance to make something really special,” he said. 

And everybody got on board. The crew spent 17 bitterly cold days in February and March shooting the story. On Nov. 4, “Christmas Jars” premiered with a special one-night screening in 807 theaters across the country. It was the No. 6 film in the U.S. that night, grossing almost half a million dollars.

Actress Jeni Ross stars as Hope Jensen in the movie “Christmas Jars.” | Provided by BYUtv

“Clearly, people want to see these kind of movies,” Wright said. “It bodes well for future movies like this.” 

But the real story behind “Christmas Jars” — which has its TV premiere Dec. 1 on BYUtv — began on a substantially smaller scale 15 years ago, when one family started a tradition to make Christmas more meaningful.

A national movement

Eighty-eight dollars and some change. That’s the amount Jason F. Wright, his wife, Kodi, and their three kids collected from mid-October through Christmas Eve. It was an easy way for Wright’s children to get involved. Leftover change from buying ice cream at school? Drop it in the jar. Spare coins from a trip to 7-Eleven? Add them to the jar. The money piled up quickly. And together, on Christmas Eve, the Wrights thought of a family that could really benefit from that jar.

“This accumulated kindness — a little bit of kindness everyday for those eight weeks or so of dropping our change in a jar — had really kind of changed us in a more profound way than I realized, until the moment of truth when we left this jar on this family’s porch, rang the doorbell and hid in the bushes,” said Jason F. Wright (no relation to “Christmas Jars” director Jonathan Wright). “We’ve not been the same since.” 

That was in 2004. Fifteen years and just as many Christmas jars later, Wright stood in his kitchen in Woodstock, Virginia, eyeing a jar on the counter his family would be giving away in a few weeks.

“It inspires us every day to pause and think about the needs of someone else,” he said during a phone interview with the Deseret News.

But Wright still vividly remembers that first family. In fact, when he fictionalized the experience into his novel, “Christmas Jars,” he named one of the characters after a child in that family.

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Over 15 years, the Christmas Jar tradition has reached all 50 states. | Provided by Jason Wright

Since The New York Times bestselling novel came out in 2005, the tradition has evolved into a movement the author never could have anticipated. Over 15 years, the Christmas jar tradition has reached thousands of people across all 50 states. Calculating that an average jar contains $200, and factoring in how many copies of “Christmas Jars” have sold and how many personal anecdotes have come in, Wright’s team estimates that people have given away between $8 and $10 million worth of spare change.

It didn’t happen overnight, but when he received an email from a woman in Texas who had received a Christmas jar in 2005, Wright knew this was bigger than one or two families. In a couple of paragraphs, a single mother struggling to pay the bills wrote of discovering a jar in a brown bag on her doorstep. It contained $200. The woman told Wright she started sobbing when she saw the jar.

“Not just at the money, but at the message — that someone had seen her and that she wasn’t living this invisible life that she had thought was kind of her present and future,” Wright said. “And that’s when I kind of went, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t my cousin Earl from his basement in Texas. This is like a real person.’” 

Expanding the movement

With the release of the movie “Christmas Jars,” Wright hopes even more people will take part in the tradition. The movie has been a long time coming — the first meeting Wright took about developing the book into a film was in February 2006. 

But before hitting the big screen, the movie worked its way into the hearts of the actors. Director Jonathan Wright and actress Jeni Ross, who plays Hope in the new film, were surprised by how genuinely happy everyone seemed on set. Little acts of kindness became the norm during the 2½ weeks of shooting. 

Actress Jeni Ross stars as Hope Jensen in the movie “Christmas Jars.” | Provided by BYUtv

“There was never anger, never frustration — which is a big change from what I’m used to on most sets,” said the 20-year-old actress, who has been in the industry for half of her life.

A few weeks before the movie premiered in theaters, Ross’ own mother started a Christmas jar that the actress looks forward to delivering. 

“The movement behind the book was really cool for me to hear about,” Ross said. “Knowing that it’s existed for 10 years before I even signed on, and getting to be a part of the movement that’s been existing so much longer than I was aware, was just a really unique experience.” 

Coming full circle 

After the book’s release, one of the first Christmas jar recipients was Cameron Birch, a 5-year-old boy with a terminal cancer diagnosis. He used his $400 in change to replace the toys in Salt Lake City’s Primary Children’s Hospital, where he spent countless hours during treatment.  

Reflecting on his own experiences, Wright recalled last year’s Christmas jar delivery. Instead of anonymously dropping off a jar, as Wright and his family have done every year, they decided to find someone in need and deliver the jar in person. After driving around for a while, they came across a homeless man sitting on a bench in front of a rundown store. The man cried when Wright’s family handed him the jar. 

Jason Wright is streaming his writing process for everyone to see.
Jason F. Wright is the author of the 2005 bestselling book “Christmas Jars.” | Provided by Jason F. Wright

“If you were filming that, you couldn’t do it any better,” Wright said. “It was just a really beautiful moment; my kids were touched. My two youngest boys, I always wonder if they’re getting it yet, but they were so taken by the experience.”

But for Wright, one of the most unexpected Christmas jar deliveries was in 2005, the year his book came out. The book didn’t immediately make a huge splash — it didn’t become a bestseller until year 2 — and Wright had been working full time in politics for a struggling nonprofit in Washington, D.C. Just before Christmas, he had to lay himself off. Money was tight, and it was in those circumstances that someone knocked on Wright’s door. 

And that’s when Wright had to smile at the irony. On his steps he found a frozen turkey and a jar filled to the brim with coins.

“It is interesting,” Wright said. “The guy that had this book come out … the year it came out actually needed a Christmas jar himself.”