A New Story from Brian “Fox” Ellis

From time to time we are honored with a Christmas related story from the famous raconteur and children  story teller Brian “Fox” Ellis of Fox Tales International. Brian has taken time out from his busy schedule of movie making, musical theatre  production and live performances to write several of his intriguing and entertaining stories for us. The first one is entitled:

Dancing Toy Soldiers, Wrestling Ballerinas and A Nutcracker

The ballet company’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” is a ritual for many families with young children. Every little girl dreams of dancing with the sugar plum fairy. It is the one time a year when everyone and their mother dresses up for a night at the ballet. Everyone wants to see their niece, granddaughter, or little sister in their glorious moment.

My daughter danced as one of the little mice who fought the toy soldiers in a ferocious mock battle. The choreography was thrilling. The audience gasped, held their breaths and let out a palpable sigh when things turned south for the mouse king. In graceful pirouettes the mice wrestled the toy soldiers and everyone applauded. My daughter crowned the Nutcracker with her sword and sent him reeling. Everyone laughed, except the Nutcracker.

For one night we can imagine a cornucopia of candied confections twirling and leaping, exotic treats prancing and dancing on stage. The whole production takes the Victorian idea of ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their head’ to a sweeter level of fancy.

The nutcracker is the prized toy, gallant in his uniform, firm in his self confidence, and the one who cracks the hardest shells so you can get at the goodness inside. He leads an army of toy soldiers to protect the confections from the wicked mice.

At the cast party after the show my daughter won a door prize, a three foot tall nutcracker, nearly as tall as she was! She beamed as she struggled to take it out to the car after the late night wound down. I placed it on the hearth of our fire place, next to the Christmas tree, next to the little table where we would place Santa’s cookies. We all went to bed.

When I woke up the next morning, the Nutcracker had moved. It was over near the back door. The doggy door looked askew. I peered through the frosty glass. There were a wide variety of fresh tracks in the new fallen snow, tracks large and small, some like feet, or should I say boots, and others looked like paws, mostly little tiny paws, but one set was huge. There were also more than a few indistinct wet footprints inside on the rug.

Did the mouse king track down the Nutcracker for round two? Did the Nutcracker beat back another attack on the sweetest confections and exotic treats? What happened last night as visions of sugarplums danced in our heads?

As I placed the Nutcracker back over by the fire place he looked a little disheveled, but there was a hint of a smile painted on his stern face I had not noticed before. As I turned to walk into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, I thought I heard that song, that unforgettable melody of Tchaikovsky’s most famous waltz whistling in my head. I turned to see where it was coming from. Just then a gust of wind lifted the doggy door. A flurry of snow blew in on the rug, wiping clean the footprints inside and out. This could not all be in my head, but now there was no proof. No one would believe me… it was only the wind I tried to convince myself, it was only the of a smile Tchaikovsky whistling wind…

Our Nutcracker still shows the faintest hint of a smile.

Trends in Outdoor Christmas Decorating

This is the time of year when we get very busy. Right now, we are answering many quote requests from commercial Christmas decorators and installers. Maybe it’s the economy, but it seems to me that there is less large out door Christmas product available, while demand has only declined a little. Our new “Larger than Life Size Nativity” set is about to sell out and we have already sold out of many versions of Toy Soldier and Nutcracker. With typhoons and tropical storms in the Pacific, timely replenishment for these figures is pretty much ruled out.

One really interesting development from a supplier is the substitution of LED bulbs for incandescent on consumer Christmas Light displays. The LED bulbs have been offered as an alternative on commercial Christmas Light Displays for a few years now. They offer a quite different look, less heat and energy use and long life compared to the incandescent light. The lighting in our homes is changing, why shouldn’t our Christmas decorations?

We are certainly seeing the impact of job losses and the reduced economy on Church giving. Many of our Nativity sets are purchased by church congregations, usually led by a parishioner who provides the leadership and often the lion’s share of the money needed to purchase the set. This year, the process is more democratic and more people are participating but it is more difficult to get people to provide money, not a surprise.

More on Fund Raising

We recently wrote about several different approaches to raising small capital funds  from church members to purchase a beautiful new Nativity scene. These programs included presentation packages of large color photos and information for the buying committee, a “Christmas in July” party with a Christmas tree decorated with pictures of the individual Nativity figures with their purchase price written on the back and a silent auction gathering again with the opportunity for members of the congregation to buy individual  pieces to complete the set. All of these methods have  worked  effectively for our customers who have reported them to me.

A recent program involved a few more steps, but was equally successful. The decision makers group decided what Nativity set they wanted asked us for the shipping cost and several full color 81/2×11 photos of the set, then sent out letters to all parishioners, describing the set, spelling out how many donations of a certain minimum amount they would need and inviting people to commit the following Sunday at church, with sign up sheet beside the large photos of the set. They were over subscribed!.

Between, bake sales, cookbook sales, raffles and many other ideas, most churches are very innovative in raising money for capital items. We offer to help any way we can.

Blogging-A Learning Experience

We started a blog to share some of our business experiences and customer stories and, because we were told by the marketing gurus that it would help the visibility of our website on Google, Yahoo, etc. What they neglected to mention is all the new programs, technical terms and problems that have to be learned and solved. We were set up with a very bare bones blog package to be hosted on the same server as our website. In fact, one expert who looked at it, compared it to renting an office in a modern high rise office building and the finding that there were no walls, floor or ceiling and no building security.

The first problem was spam. We have a very effective spam block on our basic website, but, somehow, this never was applied to our blog. We then became the target for so called “comments” from automated eastern European programs generating hundreds of paragraphs of gobbledegook all containing links to counterfeit prescription drugs, pornography or attack websites full of viruses. We now have a spam blocker, which seems to be working

The second discovery was the “link building through blog comments” business. We are able to hold all comments to the blog for inspection and approval. This prevents the automatic posting of spam or offensive comments, but it means that we still need to screen all comments that are not excluded by the spam blockers. The trick is to separate genuine comments and suggestions from the link building efforts of such sites as “myweightlosssecrets.com” or “makemoneyonline.com”. The temptation is to leave them as comments because they might help our back links and visibility, but we are not sure.

The third issue was one  we anticipated, which is the tyranny of a weekly of twice weekly post while trying to manage the real value added parts of the business such a marketing, sales and cost control. I must admit this gets easier as we just now write about whatever interesting has just happened to us and our wonderful customers.

Help with Church Fund Raising

We have shared stories of successful fund raising by churches who wish to purchase capital items, such as  Nativity sets. In discussion with committee heads, church deacons and members of the Knights of Columbus, the question arose, what more could Christmas Night do to facilitate the process. We now offer a presentation package of full color 81/2×11 inch photos with shipping costs and product specifications, assembled  in an attractive folder. This package can be passed around to committee members for discussion and the photos are larger than what can be presented on the internet computer screen. We send many of these packages  out each week and they seem to be well received.

We were asked if there was any way we could use our website shopping basket and other online tools to help churches with this fund raising. We think the way to go is using the “gift certificate” tool to allow church members to contribute easily to the set chosen by the decision makers. An email letter, with photo, could be sent to all parishioners announcing the choice and offering them the option of mailing a check to the church or visiting our website and purchasing a gift certificate for the set while referring to the church customer code. We could provide an email template for the church to use in communicating with their email list or we could do it for them. The purchase of certain sets could result in a discount through the use of matching. For example, on certain sets Christmas Night could offer a $100 contribution for every $1000 of gift certificates purchased.

As you can tell, this idea is still in the formative stages and we would like to solicit suggestions and comments from our readers and website visitors.

What are the “true” Nativity Figures?

If we trace back the development of today’s representation of the birth of Jesus, “The Christmas Creche” we start with the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, plus some barnyard animals. An early addition was shepherds, who had been visited by angels, and sheep, plus a lamb, which is consistent with the stories in the bible. St Francis of Assisi used live animals and village people to play the various roles for his creation of the Nativity.

A controversy arises with the addition of the Magi or three “Wise Men”. These figures are described by Matthew as visiting the Holy Family in a house as much as two years after Jesus” birth. The purpose of their visit and the role of the Magi is shrouded in mystery and the politics of the day. One version has the Magi coming from Persia (Iran) as spies against Israel and the Roman Empire, which it was part of. The Magi of ancient Persia were priests with great political  influence and reputation for powerful knowledge, even magic. According to this story, the Magi followed a star, (probably the North Star for navigation, but it may have been a comet) and traveled at night. This may have been to avoid the heat of the day or to evade the  Roman soldiers who policed Israel in those days.

No matter, They were captured and take in front of Herod, the Roman puppet King of Israel. A paranoid Herod, already spooked by prophecies from the Old Testament Book of Daniel and the Roman poet Virgil about the birth of a messiah was thrown into a fit of anger by the Magi’s story of following a star to the birth of a great king. Apparently this was the Magi’s intent because Herod enlisted them to travel to Bethlehem( as the prophecy  said) to find this new born messiah for him so he could be killed

We all know how this ended with the three Magi,bearing gifts, found Jesus and confirmed the wonderful story of the shepherds and the Angel marking this as an unusual birth event. So now our creche has the three Kings-the Magi and at least one camel, which they traveled on. More about Nativity figures in another post.

A Nativity Fund Raising Story

We will share with you a wonderful story about raising money to pay for new Nativity set to replace an aged creche. This is written by Joni Lawlor a member of St Paul’s Mission in Hague,  Virginia. We found it inspiring and entertaining.

Joni Lawlor writes “ Last December when uncrating the nativity scene at St Paul’s Mission in Hague Virginia, a couple of things happened. First, a mouse popped out of the box, causing quite a stir among the ladies who were uncrating the set. And secondly, no one could find King Melchior. The aged set was a bit dilapidated with several appendages missing from the shepherds and angels. It was soon after, that Father John O’Donohue, Parochial Vicar at St Paul’s located a beautiful set made  in Italy by fine craftsmen. The nativity set by Fontanini, came  with a large price tag.

And that’s when the idea of holding a “Christmas in July” fund raising event was initiated. July is a perfect month to hold a fund raiser. Our location in the Northern Neck of Virginia brings many summer visitors to St Paul’s.  At times there is standing room only at the three weekend masses.

The Christmas Night company out of  Saratoga Springs NY was very helpful, sending pictures of each piece with their prices on each photo. Parishioners were urged to “adopt” one of the fifteen pieces. The first to go was Baby Jesus, then Mary , Joseph and the Magi. The barn animals were harder to sell but in the end all the pieces were adopted by generous parishioners and visitors. The outdoor  nativity set was also replaced by a beautiful stone/resin set from Christmas Night Inc.

The event followed a 5 pm mass on July 25th ironically, exactly five months from Christmas. Many people stayed to enjoy a wine and cheese reception and to look at photos of the original pieces of the set that hung from a Christmas tree. Father O’Donohue expressed his thanks to all who contributed and urged all to come down to St Paul’s next Christmas to see the new sets.

This is a wonderful story and has prompted us to develop a program to asssist churches with their fund raing programs for new Nativity sets. We will talk more about this in our blog and we encourage readers of this blog to post suggestions as to how we can best assist fund raising.

My Ocean Freight Adventure

In past years, we have avoided offering shipment of our Nativity sets and large outdoor Christmas decorations outside the US and Canada. We even put website notices to that effect on most of our large items. This year, perhaps because of the economy, we have had numerous requests for orders from Europe and the Far East. I decided I had better learn about ocean shipping since air freight is very expensive and most people leave enough time to make less than container (LCL) shipping work.

Using Google, I identified a number of broker and fright forwarding services, some quoting big name shipping lines and some using smaller independent companies. Some of the sites were very useful, as they provided spread sheets that allowed you to calculate the cube and weight of your load, estimated ocean freight and summarized origin options and costs. Other sites were more like electronic brochures and after singing the praises of their various services, required a phone call for an emailed  quote.

Initially, I was annoyed with these non DIY sites but I came to appreciate them when I discovered “the dirty little secret of overseas shipping”, namely that ocean freight is cheap, but charges at destination are expensive and must be quoted for each shipment!To illustrate, let me offer  disguised details of a shipment we recently made to Germany from the Port of New York.

The order was for two pallets of religious statues total weight 397 pounds and cube of 3.68 cubic meters or about 130 cubic feet. This could be similar to say 10 cartons of clothing and personal effects shipped to your new home. The ocean freight was $312.80, charged at $85 per cubic meter and the origin charges, totaling, $305 were for truck pickup and delivery to the dock and customs and handling.

Where it became expensive, was with the destination charges, all charged in Euros. There was insurance, terminal handling, wharfage, delivery order(?), delivery, customs, duty and German Value Added Tax (VAT). Total $$1000.42. Obviously, there are many ways to pay for the welfare state. The VAT was refundable, if paid by the recipient, but not if prepaid by the shipper. Any way, I want bore you with more figures except to summarize and say that a product sold for $2834 cost $1618.22 to deliver to the door in Germany.

Shipping within the US and Canada usually costs between 10% and 25% of the product price so 60% for this order seems a lot until you find out what is involved.

A Real Life Story

We sell a number of our Nativity sets to churches and we often receive a request from a church official or the head of the purchase committee for a reference from another church that has recently purchased a similar set. I am going to share with you a reply we had from one of our unique and satisfied customers. This email was addressed to the president of our company and had a copy of the reference email attached.

“Claire (our president), a gentleman from your company asked if I would mind being used as a reference for your company. I told him that would be fine. I do not remember his name, but would like to him to have a copy of my response to a prospective customer. If you would make sure the appropriate person gets this, I would appreciate it”.

Her email letter then starts” Mr___________, Cedar Island United Methodist Church is a small rural church, we only have about 75 members, but do have a lot of children (what a blessing). We have had an old plastic nativity set since I can remember. We decided a couple of years ago that we were going to start a nativity scene fund and just have members what they could along. We began getting $5.00 and $10.00 donations. It took us a while but we finally raised what we needed to make a purchase. When I called Christmas Night Inc. they did not have the set we wanted (the 5 piece, we were going to add to each year). A wonderful customer service representative worked with us to get the 10 piece set for not much more than we had raised. God is good, when we made the announcement at church the amount we were short, it was collected that week. We placed the order and it came quickly. One of the wise men’s knees was cracked. we called, simply took a photo and emailed it to the company and within a couple of days we got the replacement. The pieces are absolutely beautiful. We could hardly believe that a small church could have anything that beautiful. It looks like something you would see in a big church in a big city. Needless to say, our members and children are delighted and cannot wait until we bring them out again. The folks at Christmas Night are wonderful and add a personal touch to their customer service. I would recommend this company to anyone looking for a nativity scene for their church. If you have any other questions, please feel free to get in touch with me” (signed) Charran Gaskill

This wonderful letter had us blushing but also wanting to share her heartfelt sentiments.

About Shipping – Continued

Our last blog post began a discussion about something which is very important to retailers on the internet, but which most consumers rarely think about. The safe and timely delivery of your goods is almost taken for granted in the USA and Canada and most of the developed world. The sophisticated and efficient package delivery networks set up by UPS, Fed Ex and DHL provide a nearly seamless service to get you your goods in a few days.

What the person placing the order in our website shopping basket may not know is the choices and decisions that have to made to choose the best shipping option. Amazon, for example, had all sorts of package shipment options when they shipped only books and CD’s. US Postal Service Media Mail, UPS or FedEx Ground are all available for small parcels. When Amazon started selling flat screen TV’s, I am certain their delivery options and cost’s changed.

The same thing happened to us. Our first few season’s  involved the use of UPS Ground to a very great extent. As we focused more on larger outdoor Christmas and garden figures, we use mostly less than truckload( LTL) services with our boxes banded to wood pallets. Recently, we have started to use ocean shipping services as we sell to more overseas customers such as the US Army and foreign churches. The costs and complications of ocean shipping to a foreign country really make us appreciate our huge North American retail market and the relative ease of selling and shipping within it.