How many times have I hurried by a shivering, lonely bell-ringer at a Salvation Army kettle? Too many times to count, I’m afraid. I had no time to stop. I had shopping to finish, presents to wrap.
Last weekend, God intervened. I will show you the real meaning of the kettle, He said.
For an hour on Saturday, I stood on the other side of that kettle ringing the bell with my twin sister Martha outside a small supermarket in Kingsville, Ohio. It’s a wee spit of a village an hour east of Cleveland, my hometown, and not far from where Martha now lives.
I thought we’d be lucky to get a nickel or two. People here are struggling economically. I assumed they’d stroll past and avert their eyes, but I was wrong. In our hour there, 70% of passers-by put cash or coins in that kettle.
The day was cold and wet and sneezing, as if Mother Nature had a bad cold, so we swaddled ourselves in winter coats, mittens and hats. My face mask kept my nose warm.
We arrived a few minutes before noon and took our places beside the bright red kettle under a little covered area by the supermarket door. “People are giving,” the man we replaced told us. He was right.
The kettle had a wee cross-shaped opening big enough to accept coins or folded cash, but too small for a Scrooge to reach in, grab cash and run. Most people who came by reached into pockets or purses for a few dollars or loose change.
One woman donated as she entered the store because “my arms will be full of bags when I come out,” she explained, smiling.
A weary-eyed mother came out with two pre-school-aged girls who wore pajamas, but had no coats. They appeared to be impoverished, so I didn’t expect them to donate, but their mother dug into her pocket and gave the girls a few coins. Both scrambled excitedly over to the kettle and dropped their coins in.
Some people knew Martha and stopped to chat. Through it all, we took turns ringing that little bell.
About 20 minutes into our shift, a man wearing a red jacket drove up, poked his head out of his pickup in the drizzle and asked, “Who is ringing at 1 o’clock?” Martha didn’t know. He said he’d be back at 12:50 p.m., and if nobody showed up, he’d take that shift along with his scheduled shift from 4-5 p.m.
He told us he wanted to be sure all shifts were covered because the woman scheduling bell ringers had lost her husband to COVID a few days ago. He said few people donate unless someone is ringing the bell. “I’ll be back,” he said. He drove off.
Sure enough, he came back at 12:52 p.m., but the man ringing 1-2 p.m. had arrived by then, and he said his mother would be ringing 2-3 p.m. The man in the red jacket — a retiree and now the custodian at the Baptist church — said he’d ring at 3 if needed, then departed again.
This was the last day for the red kettle. Last year, despite COVID-19, people donated $12,000 here, and that man wanted to be sure to get every dollar he could. The money would serve local needs here in Ashtabula County.
Toward the end of our shift, Bill Hoyle happened to stop by. He’s an old friend of my sister’s. He was dressed for Christmas in a red sweatshirt and a holly-green vest. He poked a few bills into the kettle and broke into an Irish Christmas carol about holly berries. He sang five verses, his beautiful Irish tenor voice caroling those sweet words with gusto and belief. Despite the cold, the rain, and spiking COVID numbers, he was Christmas joy in person.
I will never hear that song without thinking of the Salvation Army bell and the people who stopped to give as they passed by. In their eyes and in their generosity, I saw Christmas.