By Ken Denbow
Christmas-in-July sales are common. Santa Claus lands his sleigh in the same mall parking lot just vacated by witches as they mount their brooms and fly off to Hogwarts, or wherever witches go after Halloween night. Some people claim these events to be the start of Christmas. But for many, the real start is when the Salvation Army red kettles, accompanied by bell ringing attendants, appear on Thanksgiving afternoon at half time of the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game, and around the world. Where did this tradition start?
The idea for the kettles originated when Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee wondered how to raise money to provide San Francisco’s poor with a Christmas dinner. Prior to joining the Salvation Army, he had been a sailor, making his living as a crewman sailing merchant ships. He had made a port call at Liverpool, England, and had seen a big crab pot on the docks where visiting seamen could make donations to support the poor. He placed such a pot at the foot of Market Street, and donations were such that he was able to provide Christmas dinner for over 1,000 of the needy in San Francisco.From that simple beginning, the kettles have spread nationwide and worldwide. By 1901, the kettles in New York City provided enough money for a massive sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden. Currently, about 4.5 million poor people receive Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners each year as a result of the kettle donations.
The bell ringers are a mixture of volunteers and persons who are out of work and destitute.
“For those out of work, it provides a minimum wage job, giving them the dignity of having a job,” said Major Lee Lescano, a Del Cerro resident who heads the Sierra del Mar Division, which includes San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties. “Both volunteers and workers must be able to stand for the duration of their shifts. We also do a background check on them prior to putting them at the kettles.”
As in the case of the protagonist in the 2013 movie, “Silver Bells,” many volunteers are not enthusiastic when they start, but learn to love the job.
“I got roped into volunteering,” said kettle volunteer Bill Todd outside Kiel’s Market on Jackson Drive. “My buddy was supposed to do it one day, but got sick so I filled in for him. After that first day, I just got hooked and have been doing it ever since.”
With Bill, the donor doesn’t hear the traditional ringing of the bells. He is the lead guitarist in the band, Holy Smoke. Instead of ringing a bell, he sings Christmas Carols with a definite Credence beat.
“Our fund raising goal this year is $787,000,” Major Lescano stated. “As of Dec. 11, we have raised about $347,000 countywide. We are running about 25 percent behind last year. The kettle income is key to helping the people we serve.”
“Last year we served over 230,000 people,” Suzi Woodruff Lacey, Salvation Army’s director of communications added. “Besides the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, we provide presents to poor children, homeless shelters, Transitional Living Center for mothers with children, where the mothers receive training in job and parenting skills, and many other community services. We hope to increase that to 260,000 this year.”
“There are seven Corps and Community Centers in San Diego,” Lescano said. “Each one has their own group of kettles. The money donated stays in that Corps area, helping neighbors.”
Nationwide, 83 percent of the donations go to serving those in need. This places the Salvation Army near the top of charities in terms of allocating a large portion of its resources toward to the people it benefits.
Many unusual things have been found in the kettles over the years, ranging from valuable gold coins and jewelry, checks for five figures, and even a gold tooth.
Not unusual is the gratitude of those receiving the funds. Whether it is a warm, dry place to sleep, a shiny Christmas toy, a Christmas dinner, or the sense of someone caring after a one-on-one counseling session, the appreciation of the needy is a palpable thing.
So, when you hear the bell ringing and see the traditional red kettle, you can think back to that first lonely kettle and bell ringer, standing in the cold and fog in front of the Oakland Ferry Landing at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco, and marvel at how one innovative idea had a positive effect on the lives of so many people.
—Contact Ken Denbow at email@example.com.