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Holiday Heroes…The Bell Ringers

December 14, 2010

I see them appear right after Thanksgiving and take up their stations at the entrances to malls and big box stores.  I imagine, were I to live in a metropolitan area that had stores and shopping “downtown” rather than in sprawling strip malls, I would see them on street corners.

While here in 2010 they tend to be dressed in street clothes with some sort of smock or cap as an identifying garment, I still envision them in ‘military’ uniforms, reminding me of Sarah Brown from “Guys and Dolls.”  The uniforms are but one interesting aspect of this group – today’s “Holiday Heroes” – the Salvation Army.

So how did the Salvation Army ringer become an iconic image of the Christmas Season?

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In 1891, Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee was distraught because so many poor individuals in San Francisco were going hungry. During the holiday season, he resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner for the destitute and poverty-stricken. He only had one major hurdle to overcome — funding the project.

Where would the money come from, he wondered. He lay awake nights, worrying, thinking, praying about how he could find the funds to fulfill his commitment of feeding 1,000 of the city’s poorest individuals on Christmas Day. As he pondered the issue, his thoughts drifted back to his sailor days in Liverpool, England. He remembered how at Stage Landing, where the boats came in, there was a large, iron kettle called “Simpson’s Pot” into which passers-by tossed a coin or two to help the poor.

The next day Captain McFee placed a similar pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing at the foot of Market Street. Beside the pot, he placed a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.” He soon had the money to see that the needy people were properly fed at Christmas.

Six years later, the kettle idea spread from the west coast to the Boston area. That year, the combined effort nationwide resulted in 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy. In 1901, kettle contributions in New York City provided funds for the first mammoth sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden, a custom that continued for many years. Today in the U.S., The Salvation Army assists more than four-and-a-half million people during the Thanksgiving and Christmas time periods.

Captain McFee’s kettle idea launched a tradition that has spread not only throughout the United States, but all across the world. Kettles are now used in such distant lands as Korea, Japan, Chile and many European countries. Everywhere, public contributions to Salvation Army kettles enable the organization to continue its year-round efforts at helping those who would otherwise be forgotten.

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Obviously, the work of the Salvation Army, and many other groups with a similar focus, continues throughout the year.  The needs of families served by their programs do not only span the period between Thanksgiving, conveniently coinciding with the frenzy that is holiday shopping.  I’m sure the Salvation Army relies on the red kettle program and its other Christmas program, the Angel Tree, to establish a base of support for the remainder of the year.  Obviously, when the holiday season ends, the need for assistance and services continues.

So in the spirit of the holidays, I will continue to drop something in a red kettle each time I pass.  And I will remember that just because the kettles are packed away, that doesn’t mean the need is gone. I’ll do my part to keep the giving and support going in whatever way I can throughout the year.

And most importantly – I’ll thank the volunteers who spend their time as Bell Ringers.

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