A Christmas Treasure

updated 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT WASN'T QUITE THE NIGHT BEFORE Christmas, but all through Richard Evans's house two years ago not a creature was stirring. Then some mysterious inspiration caused the Salt Lake City advertising executive to get up, head to the kitchen table and begin writing a Christmas tale for his two daughters, Jenna, then 6, and Allyson, 4. He labored through the night, composing a story about a family that moves into a mansion to care for an elderly widow and is transformed when they discover a cache of love-filled letters written by the woman to her long-dead infant daughter.

The result, begun that night and finished in six weeks, was The Christmas Box. But what began as a token of affection—"I wanted to express my love to my girls in a way that would be timeless," says Evans, 32—soon took on a life of its own. This month The Christmas Box, an 87-page, $4.95 paperback, is a holiday best-seller.

At first Evans made just 20 photocopies of the story and passed them out to family and friends. The early reviews were all raves ("I wept when I read it," says his mother, June, 61). Then the story began to be passed around during the 1992 holiday season. "I was shocked when I found out that The Christmas Box had been read by 160 people in three weeks," says Evans. "People told me it was being quoted from the pulpit."

Encouraged, Evans sent his manuscript to six major publishing houses—all of which rejected it because it was too short and too seasonal. But Evans wasn't ready to give up. Last year he spent $5,000 to have 8,000 copies printed and distributed to Utah bookstores. Within weeks, The Christmas Box was the most sought-after book in Utah. So far this year he has had 250,000 copies distributed nationally. "I think The Christmas Box has a possibility to be one of those sleepers, like The Bridges of Madison County," says Linda Doyle, a buyer for the Waldenbooks chain, which last week ranked it the No. 2 best-seller on its trade books backlist. "People start talking about it, and it takes off."

Evans, now making enough money to devote himself full-time to writing, says he thinks he can finally explain what caused him to pick up pen and paper on that fateful night two years ago. The explanation also came at night—a sudden memory of his mother's losing a daughter—just like the woman in the story did—when Evans was 3. "She was stillborn," he says. "There was no funeral, no ceremony. I feel this story came to me, 30 years later, as a way to help my mother finally heal."

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