Who received the very first Christmas Jar?

Call me odd, but my favorite time of year has nothing to do with lights, gifts, smells or snow, and it doesn’t start on Thanksgiving. Actually, it has no firm start date.

My favorite season begins the first time I open my e-mail and find a Christmas Jar anecdote. This year’s first sighting hit my inbox on Nov. 17. It came from Rachel in Minnesota:

“(Today) I received a Christmas Jar filled with $164.01. Wish I knew who to thank, as it helps more than they will probably ever know. You can bet your bottom dollar that the extra 1 cent is the beginning of my very own Christmas Jar.”

Thus it begins, another season of heart-tugging miracles. While the book that began the movement might have been fiction, the magical stories that flood my website are as real as the people who both give and receive the special jars full of your quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies.

I hear from single mothers who prayed for a miracle, widows who needed a reminder they’re not alone, depressed dads who found themselves jobless during the holidays. I hear from families, young singles, pastors and kids.

The details are different but the messages identical. No matter the amount of money, giving or receiving a jar changes the way they view the holiday and brings them a dose of hope.

I’ve said it a thousand times in churches, schools and at community events. The Christmas Jar movement has far surpassed the novel itself and is infinitely more important. It’s not about a book any longer; it’s about millions of dollars of spare change given away, mostly in anonymity, to people in need.

I’m often asked who received the very first Christmas Jar after the book was released in 2005. While it’s impossible to know with complete certainly, I believe it began in Farmington, Utah. After countless stories shared in person and online, this one remains my favorite:

A young man named Cameron Birch, age 5, was bravely nearing the end of a life sliced short by cancer. On Christmas Eve, just before his long step from this life’s mission to the next, an evening knock at the door startled Cameron and his family.

As usual, his two older brothers raced to see who stood on their quiet porch. When they opened the door, they found two enormous and anonymous Christmas Jars, one of which held a note and a copy of the book. The note read that the money was Cameron’s, and his grateful parents explained more than once that it was his to spend.

What mother wouldn’t offer their fast-fading a son a final chance to have a material wish come true?

What father wouldn’t say, “This money is yours, bud. What would you like?”

What child wouldn’t wish for a last lap at Toys R Us? A chance to fill a cart at Wal-Mart? Not Cameron.

When given more than $400 in change and a list of enticing options as long as his days would allow, the young man suggested the family replace some of the toys in the Primary Children’s Center playroom where he’d spent so many hours since his initial diagnosis. He imagined new puzzles, fresh books and a sturdier play tool bench. He dreamed of smiles on the faces of his fellow cancer patients but wouldn’t dream of keeping a nickel.

My daughter and I had the pleasure of meeting Cameron six weeks later. We saw the empty jars on his kitchen counter, already being filled with coins for an unknown family the following Christmas.

We sat on the edge of his bed in the living room and listened. Not to his voice, all but lost in the noise of death’s footsteps, but to his spirit. I thought then, and now, that sometimes the spirit speaks louder than a mouth ever could.

He died three days later on a Sunday.

Years have passed, and still his decision brings chills. All of the things he could have done, after all he’d endured for nearly a year as cancer teased and taunted, he chose to pass it on to others he believed had a greater need.

Were other Christmas Jars given away that first year? Many. Are their unique stories inspiring? Of course. Do I still believe Cameron was the first and that after five years and countless jars he remains our ambassador? Absolutely, and Cameron’s legacy lives on.

Still, after all the questions and all the answers about how, when and where it all began, perhaps it doesn’t really matter who received the first jar in 2005.

The real question is, who will receive yours in 2010?

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