CHRISTMAS IN MY HEART® MEANDERS

“Meander” is the most apt verb I can think of to describe the journey of the last nineteen years. Nothing about it can remotely be classified as being predictable (perhaps the most exciting and frustrating aspect of turning over the navigational role of one’s life to God).

If I ever doubted the confusion generated by this meandering, the reactions of those who stop to look at the blur of Christmas-related titles and publishers at book-signing tables would set me straight. Goodness, sometimes I get confused myself just trying to explain all the twists and turns. But let’s try anyhow.

Christmas in My Heart

First of all: what I’ve come to call the “core series.” Fortunately, Review and Herald Publishing’s commitment to the series was unwavering (for a decade and a half); this provided the stability the series needed in its formative years. Unbeknownst to me, that very first year, I was locked in to what became the series’ defining template: old-timey Currier and Ives covers (horizontal rather than vertical format), old-timey woodcut illustrations inside, and old-timey (even when stories are new ones) stories that touch the heart. As time passed, and more and more Christmasaholics bought into completion (keeping their own series complete by buying the new collection every Christmas season), the template became so iconic I couldn’t have altered it even had I wanted to do so.

Focus on the Family’s involvement began early, and has continued with unbroken commitment ever since. Indeed, well over half the time, the Focus Christmas story of the year has been taken from the pages of Christmas in My Heart®. Most years, the books have been offered as premiums to ministry supporters, as part of seasonal mailouts reaching millions every Christmas.

Because of Focus on the Family’s involvement and because the first four books were a GOLD MEDALLION Finalist in 1995, the series rapidly expanded into Evangelical Christianity.

Which led to the seven-year partnership with Doubleday/Random House, beginning in 1996. Their books were re-scrambles (some stories taken at random from each of the first four collections), with old-timey (but not Currier and Ives) covers, woodcut illustrations (but different from those in the core series), vertical format rather than horizontal, and hardback with dust jacket rather than trade paper. With the entry of Doubleday, the series was marketed in chain stores everywhere, thus becoming a staple in the broader secular market.

Concerned that someone else might try to steal the title, Doubleday insisted that we Trademark it (which we did, after considerable legal choreography, effort and money). We renewed that Trademark at the end of five years, and again after ten years. Fortuitously, it turns out, for during the last 24 months, someone (a major player in today’s marketplace) moved in on the title. Only the Trademark saved us.

Christmas in My Soul

Doubleday/Random House published four Christmas in My Heart® Treasuries (1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999); at the end of that period, they moved on to a new series title, Christmas in My Soul for their gift books over the next three years (2000, 2001, and 2002), each book a re-scramble of stories taken from the first six books in the core series.

In 1998, Tyndale House co-published with Review and Herald the core edition of Christmas in my Heart® 7 (both publishing house imprints on the title page). In 1999 Tyndale House joined forces with Focus on the Family to publish a vertical trade paper edition of the core series (with different cover and introduction, but otherwise remaining the same content and illustration-wise).

But when Doubleday switched series titles in 2000, Focus on the Family and Tyndale House pounced on the hardback rights to the core series. Those vertical hardbacks with dust jackets were also beautiful works of art, just as Doubleday’s were, with old-timey non-Currier and Ives covers; but otherwise, inside, the same stories and illustrations as those used by Review and Herald in the core series. These editions continued to be published through 2006 (Christmas in My Heart® 9 – 15).

The 12 Stories of Christmas

In 2001, RiverOak/David C. Cook published The Twelve Stories of Christmas (the first twelve Christmas stories I wrote personally); for the only time, I also told the story behind the story—how I happened to write each one.

In 2006, storms assailed Christmas in My Heart®. Review and Herald wavered in its commitment to continuing the series, thus opening up the possibility of Focus on the Family/Tyndale House taking over all markets for the core series. Needless to say, Focus on the Family and Tyndale were delighted. But, at the last minute, Review and Herald decided to publish Christmas in My Heart® 16 after all. Result: Tyndale House and Focus on the Family ceased publishing their hardbacks of the core series. But then, even though they were still selling the same number of books as before, Review and Herald decided that Christmas in My Heart® 16 would be a nice number to conclude the series with. Not sharing this perception that the series had reached its terminus, I asked Pacific Press Publishing if they were interested in picking up the series with Christmas in My Heart® 17. The answer, in only hours, was a resounding, “In a heartbeat!” Same format, same Currier and Ives covers, same woodcut illustrations as before—all agreed upon. Thus the series has continued; this year with Christmas in My Heart® 19. The manuscript for Christmas in My Heart® 20 has already been sent in.

In 2007 and 2008, Howard/Simon & Schuster published three beautiful retrospective collections (rescramblings from Christmas in My Heart® 1 – 16): The Best of Christmas in My Heart® 1, Christmas in My Heart® 2, and Candle in the Forest and Other Christmas Stories Children Love.

Christmas in My Heart® 1 was published in Spanish and the first six books were published (rescrambles) in Norwegian.

St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas

Besides this, I edited Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abby Farwell Brown’s Christmas Angel for Focus on the Family/Tyndale House in 1997 and 1999. I partnered with Canon James Rosenthal for our book St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas for Thomas Nelson in 2005; just off the press is another St. Nicholas book, my Saint Nicholas, part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters biography series.

This incredible story would have been much more difficult without the steadfast support and innovative placement of our collections by my cherished agent and friend, Greg Johnson, president of WordServe Literary Group, Ltd.

A special note: because of editorial differences of opinion (as to specific story-inclusion) in Review and Herald and Focus on the Family/Tyndale House, those who wish to acquire the complete core series of stories—so far—would need to secure the following:

Review and Herald Christmas in My Heart® 1 – 16.

Focus on the Family/Tyndale House Christmas in My Heart® 13 and Christmas in My Heart® 15.

Pacific Press Christmas in My Heart® 17, 18, 19.

* * * * *

So this blog brings all these meanderings up to date. Connie and I have no idea as to how long the series may last—we leave all that up to the good Lord. We take no credit for the first nineteen years of its story: we’ve only been taking orders from our Commander in Chief. When it is His will that the last Christmas in My Heart® book rolls off the press, then it will be time to write “Finis” to its story.

But not until then.

I’ll conclude this blog with a line from one of James Dobson’s many personal letters to me, “You’re right, Joe: Neither of our ministries belongs to us—but isn’t it a great ride?”

That it has been—and continues to be.

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RHAPSODY OF THE SEAS & STORMS I HAVE LOVED

Yes, it’s possible to fall in love with a ship. They say there are only three perfect shapes in our world: a violin, a ship’s hull, and a beautiful woman—and each of these harmonizes with the other two.

Well, I just fell in love with Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas; it is that rarity: a near perfect ship (both inside and out). For a ship is either a work of art—or it is not. Perfect ships don’t just happen: they must be dreamed up by visionaries; visionaries who know that perfection rarely results from happenstance. It’s like a perfect dinner: every piece of it mut appeal to all one’s senses without a false note anywhere. As is true with a beautiful woman, it is impossible to define what makes her so; it is either there or it is not. I seek the same perfection in our books; indeed I agonize over every piece: the choice of stories (emotive power, length, mood, velcroishly impossible to forget once read, etc.), the position each is slotted into, the illustrations, the cover, the typeface, the paper—each is a totality that is either a beautiful work of art or it is not. Just so a ship like Rhapsody.

Connie and I have cruised on a number of beautiful ships owned by Carnival, Olympia, Celebrity, Silversea, Norwegian, and now Royal Caribbean. Several of them I have loved enough to incorporate into stories: Carnival’s Jubilee, in “White Wings (Christmas in My Heart 10); Olympia’s Stella Solaris in “Stella Solaris” (Tears of Joy for Mothers); and the Norwegian Sun in my upcoming Christmas story, “Journey” (Christmas in My Heart 19). But of them all, only Silversea’s Silver Cloud is as beautiful as Rhapsody of the Seas.

But I really didn’t fall deeply in love with Rhapsody until May 19. I had no sooner finished my “Thousand Miles to Nome” lecture for the entire ship when the waves began to grow as we faced the full 10,000-mile-across power of the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Sound. By dinner-time, we spent half the time looking out the window at the gathering storm.

Each minute that passed, the storm grew worse—of course, loving the elemental power of storms so much, I’d personally classify such storms as ‘better.” In spite of sophisticated stabilizers, the ship began to rock. Occasionally a broadside-wave would hit us so hard you could almost hear the Rhapsody cry out in pain. Connie went to bed early so that she’d have something firm to hang on to. I, on the other hand, left the room and ricocheted from wall to wall as I attempted to walk down the long hallways. Few people were about, for they’d even had to stop the evening show part way through, fearing the performers would break legs or worse. But the venturesome ones who were out—well, we bonded, for it would have been great fodder for America’s Funniest Home Videos. We reeled – staggered – sashayed like so many thoroughly soused drunks. The wildest sensation was doing stairs, for when taking steps up, the steps would rise up to greet you; when taking steps down, the steps would drop away from you. I was so enchanted with this stair phenomenon that I did the aft set of eleven flights of stairs a number of times. What was really funny was seeing the look of disbelief on the face of a first floor staff member who couldn’t believe this lunatic was back for another run at it.

Afterward, since I couldn’t even stand up without crashing into something in our stateroom, I tumbled into bed and blissfully fell asleep to the night-long rocking of the deep while poor Connie couldn’t sleep at all. Come to think of it, Christ must have loved storms as much as I, for His disciples couldn’t believe it when He slept through a violent storm in mid Sea of Galilee.

I was reminded of several other great storms in my life, especially the one on the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. We were visiting my brother, acclaimed concert pianist, Romayne Wheeler, and staying in his Eagle’s Nest studio on the canyon rim. A terrific storm hit, and the wind-driven rain fell up at us from the mile-deep canyon below, so it came at us from all directions. The battered studio began to leak like the proverbial sieve, both from the roof and from below through the shuttered windows. The two grand pianos getting drenched, we formed a brigade to help save them from ruination, sloshing around barefoot all the while. Terrifying because continuing lightning pyrotechnics could easily have electrocuted us all.

The only comparable storm I can remember on the sea to the one on May 19 (waves 40 feet high and 70 MPH winds) was one I experienced when I was 13 on a banana boat en route from Trujillo, Honduras to Tampa, Florida. This 300-foot-long fruit tanker ran straight into a full-strength hurricane—weather forecasting was still in its infancy back then, so we had no warning. In the absence of stabilizers, the ship rolled from side to side and frontally plunged deep down and then leaped sky high, to such an extent that almost everyone was throwing-up from nausea. But where was I? You guessed it: up on the top deck holding on to the railing for dear life as great waves all but buried me. Oh it was wonderful! My folks were too sick to care if I washed overboard or not. Undoubtedly the long line of New England sea captains in my paternal lineage has much to do with my reveling in the fury of great storms.

After the May 19 storm had run its course, the master of the ship, Captain Stein Roger Bjorheim [what intrigues me no little is that almost all cruise captains seem to come from Norway] came on the intercom and after-the-fact reassured us, declaring that the safest place to have been in a storm such as yesterday’s was in the Rhapsody of the Seas for she’d earlier on ridden out a Category 5 hurricane with hardly a scratch. That’s when I fell deeply in love with Rhapsody of the Seas. I yearn to tryst with her again.