Christmas In My Heart Turns Twenty!!!

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

 

CHRISTMAS IN MY HEART® TURNS TWENTY

 

For Dec. 7, 2011

 

In this strange journey we call “life,” certain years loom larger than others—2011 is one of those for Connie and me.  Mainly because of an event we never saw coming.  Not with that first book of Christmas stories in 1992, for none of us ever expected there to be another—why, there was not even a number printed on that horizontal trade paper book, with a Currier & Ives cover and woodcut illustrations for the stories inside.      But miracle of miracle, four years later the series had its fifth birthday.  Not only was that not the end, but five years later, here came its tenth birthday.  Each of those anniversaries, we’d inwardly wonder, Is this the end?  And then came its fifteenth birthday—and it was still alive.  One year later, Review and Herald® signed off after sixteen wonderful years; serendipitously, in only hours, Pacific Press picked up the torch—and here we are at twenty, still under full steam.

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Along the way, other publishers bought into the series:

Doubleday/Random House with seven hardback collections—they it was who insisted we trademark the title.  We’re grateful; otherwise, several years ago, we’d have lost control of the brand.  RiverOak/David C. Cook published one hardback.  Focus on the Family and Tyndale House published one vertical trade paper and seven hardbacks.  And, more recently, Howard/Simon & Schuster published three hardbacks.  All told: 38 books bearing that series title.  And the manuscript for Christmas in My Heart® #21 was just sent in to Pacific Press to launch our third decade.

We’ve never felt the series to be our own for it was born over my protests; we didn’t become pro-active rather than re-active until two years later.  And again and again, during the years that followed, we’ve seen a Higher Power step in and keep it going against what appeared to be overwhelming odds.  A number of them having to do with my own body, that all but shut down on me twice; a head-on accident that should have ended everything; and several others so close a call that it was clear God was preserving my life, for what He considered to be “an unfinished task.”

            THE 20TH CELEBRATION

It has been an eventful year: Last Christmas I was on Hope TV’s “My Story, My Song,” reading Christmas stories each of the fourteen days leading up to Christmas.  Four months later, Don Schneider’s “Really Living” hour-long interview was broadcast by Hope TV.  Several months ago, Jim Gilley’s hour-long interview was broadcast on 3 ABN-TV.  All three were world-wide.  Just a couple of days ago I recorded several Christmas stories for a Focus on the Family podcast.  Only a week ago, for the 21st year in a row, I was interviewed by Dr. Gerry Fuller on “Breakaway” on WGTS-FM (the second most powerful Christian radio station in America) for an hour.  On Dec. 13, I’ll be privileged to join Janet Parshall on her syndicated radio program, “Janet Parshall’s America” (a yearly tradition going clear back to the beginning of Christmas in My Heart®).  I’ve had so many book-signings lately, I’ve begun to feel like a wind-up doll.  Miraculously, God has so far preserved me from carpal tunnel, a miracle given that I’ve often signed for eight to twelve hours at a stretch. But I consider it an honor to have been invited into so many thousands of households over the years.  I take great care to make each of my book inscriptions a work of art.  I tell people the real reason: “Fifty years from now one of your descendants may find this book in a musty old attic trunk, dust it off, look inside, and say, ‘Look!  This was given to Grandma when she was young half a century ago!”  Then family members would almost kill for this book, considering it to be a cherished artifact of family history.

Each of our now 75 books (60 being story anthologies) has its own distinctive inscription, each of which I must remember whenever I do a book-signing.  Many, no small thanks to the worldwide web, Facebook, my website and weekly blogs and daily tweets, take place at home as people everywhere ask for that scarcest of commodities in our digital age: a personalized inscription to a book.  We never charge for these..

CHRISTMASAHOLIC COMPLETISTS

Just a week ago, in marathon East Coast signings, I came across a new phenomenon: completists.  People who have all twenty of the Christmas in My Heart® series.  They’ll stand in line for hours waiting for me to get to them and their stacks of books.  Almost invariably they’ll have a big stack of books for me to inscribe to their families and friends.  One lady in the Northwest gives away over 200 a year, to her nursing staff.

It is deeply humbling to me to be thus assured that so many cherish every last book in this series.  Reasons completists give: that they’re spiritually based, you can’t read them without reaching for the Kleenex® box, the values incorporated are worth living by, they are very difficult to put down, they run through the entire gamut of emotions, they feature authors whose work deserves to live on [many are virtually unknown today], and taken in their entirety, they add up to the greatest treasure box of such stories—perhaps in the world.

If you have not yet discovered this series, I invite you to join our world-wide family of Christmasaholics—for us, Christmas lasts all year long!

* * * * *

Next week, we’ll move back to the journey through our Southwest national parks.

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ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS: THE NEXT STEP

Again and again in life, I’ve seen it happen: God never does anything by halves! And I was about to experience the second half of a plan I knew nothing about. I took my creative writing class on a field trip to Maryland’s largest publishing house, Review and Herald Publishing Association, in Hagerstown. Once the guide had my students safely in tow, I escaped. As I wandered around, I chanced to peer into the doorway of then Acquisitions Editor Penny Estes Wheeler (I figured that with a last name of Wheeler she couldn’t be all bad).

We small-talked for some time. Turned out she was already familiar with my writing in magazines and liked what she’d read. After a time she said, “Well, what have you been writing lately?”

“A couple of Christmas stories.”

“What kind?”

“Oh, they’re Christ-centered rather than Santa Claus-centered.”

“What else?”

“You’ll laugh.”

“Try me.”

“Well, you can’t read them without crying.”

“Just what we need. But you’ve only written two?” She replied.

“Yes. But I’ve been collecting others all my life – in fact, I was raised on them,” was my response.

That’s all it took. Being very good at what she did, she leaned back and said, in just as deceptively casual a tone as Naomi had used a couple of years before, “You know, there’s a real vacuum for that kind of story today in the market today. Why don’t you just package up your favorite stories and send them to us? We’ll do the rest. Piece of cake.”

Although it sounded easy, I suspected I had a lot of work to do. Penny bulldogged me by mail and by phone until I assembled a big stack of Christmas stories and sent them to Hagerstown.  Then, happy to be done with my part, I all but forgot about it.

Several months later, I was jolted back to reality with a phone call. She said, “Joe, the committee has cried its way through your manuscript. We’d very much like to publish it.”

From there on, events moved quickly – but no thanks to me. From the title of the book to the Currier and Ives winter scene on the cover to the woodcut illustrations inside, my good editor pushed the book through.

The finished book was beautiful. People loved it.  But most of all they loved the deeply-moving stories inside. The collection was called Christmas in My Heart, and it was intended to be a stand-alone book

But gradually sales began to build. People realized that the collection was different from anything else available. When it went through two printings before Christmas, my editor got me on the phone and said, “Joe, can you put together another collection right away so we can rush it into print before next Christmas?”

“Sure, no problem,” I answered.

So it came to pass that our second collection bravely bore a “2” on its cover. It would not be a one-shot book after all; it would be a two-book series.

Right after Christmas in My Heart came out in 1992, I became convicted that I ought to send a copy to Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. I knew him to be as sentimental about deeply-moving stories as I was.  I inscribed a copy to Dobson and sent it off. He didn’t respond, but one of his vice presidents did – she loved it! When Number 2 came out, I sent him another. Dobson didn’t respond, but the same vice president did.

Late in ’93, I came to my personal Rubicon – on the phone was my remorseless editor: “Joe, Number Two is selling so well, we’re wondering if it’s possible for you to put together a third collection of Christmas stories?”

The ball was now in my court. I was out of stories as well as illustrations for the covers. If the series was to go to three, I would have to seriously dig in and find the stories that would grace it. Fortunately, by now readers had begun sending me their favorite stories, their way of letting me know they wanted another collection. So I was able to put together a third collection. As for the illustrations, I began buying old books illustrated with woodcuts (most of these books were at least a hundred years old).

So it was that I belatedly moved from a passive role into an active one. For the first time I began to realize that I was part of something big. That it was big enough to commandeer the rest of our lives, however, was mercifully withheld from us.

In the fall of ’94, Christmas in My Heart 3 came out, and I once again sent a copy to Dr. Dobson. In my naiveté I assumed that all you had to do was address a book to Dobson, mail it off, and he’d get it and read it. The reality was that Focus had thirteen hundred employees; that over eighty Christian publishers barraged the ministry with their books; and that it took almost six hundred employees to answer mail and phone calls from people like me. The chances of getting through to the great man himself were almost nil. Yet, in spite of those facts, now came the third life-changing day. The telephone rang and a voice I’d never heard before was on the line. The voice turned out to be my correspondence friend at Focus on the Family, Diane Passno.

My relationship with Focus on the Family ministry really began that day when they asked to use one of my stories called “The Tiny Foot” by Frederick Loomis. They called again later and asked if the story could also be used on the air. Again I agreed. But I still had no idea of what those two requests would really mean for me. I did remember that Diane Passno had warned me, “Joe, if Dr. Dobson ever really uses you, your life will never be the same again.”

Truer words were never spoken. By the time that story had gone out to about three million homes and it had been read on the air around the world, life as I had known it was over. The series was a Gold Medallion finalist the next year.

Twelve publishing houses, and 73 books after inception, here we are in December of 2010. Christmas in My Heart®, now the longest-running Christmas story series in America, has been made so by seven publishers: Review and Herald, Pacific Press, Focus on the Family, Tyndale House, Doubleday/RandomHouse, Howard/Simon and Schuster, and RiverOak/David C. Cook. I’ve never taken credit for any of it, for it is not a Joe Wheeler-thing, but rather a God-thing. What a joy to be given the privilege of co-partnering with the Divine.