Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 12, 2005, Herald Journal

The sound of guilt, blessings




It’s a sound that every holiday season can find a way to cut through a person’s good-intentioned soul like the December wind through a poor person’s old coat.

Maybe that’s why they chose it.

The familiar ringing of the bells in front of stores is a tradition that started with one red kettle in the late 19th century.

The story is recorded on the website www.usc.salvationarmy.org:

The Salvation Army Captain in San Francisco had resolved, in December of 1891, to provide a free Christmas dinner to the area’s poor persons. But how would he pay for the food?

As he went about his daily tasks, the question stayed in his mind. Suddenly, his thoughts went back to his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England.

On the stage landing, there was a large pot, called “Simpson’s pot” into which charitable donations were thrown by passers by.

On the next morning, he secured permission from the authorities to place a similar pot at the Oakland ferry landing, at the foot of Market Street.

No time was lost in securing the pot and placing it in a conspicuous position, so that it could be seen by all those going to and from the ferry boats.

In addition, a brass urn was placed on a stand in the waiting room for the same purpose.

Thus, Captain Joseph McFee launched a tradition that has spread not only throughout the United States, but throughout the world.

The tradition has adapted to the changing culture, as a kettle by a ferry landing would probably not help the Salvation Army stay out of the red, no matter how loud the bell.

Now, the persistent ring of good will towards men resonates from our contemporary great mecca’s of communal gathering, our nation’s stores.

In my opinion, the red kettle could do better.

As I rush into the local Wal-Mart to pick up some shampoo, I am confronted with that sound.



It’s late.

It’s windy.

It’s cold.

Do I have any change? Maybe somewhere in the bottom of my purse.

Right now, I’m cold and tired, my hair is still wet from swimming laps at the gym, and I just want to go home and eat.

But there it is.



No, I am not going to take off my gloves, unzip my purse and cough up a few lint-dusted quarters.

What good would a few quarters do anyway?

I don’t have any bills.

As I approach, the sound gets louder.



I grimace. Partly because of the wind on my frozen head, and partly because of the guilt building up inside.

I really should donate something. But I regularly give money to church and other charitable causes.

I stepped up during the Katrina catastrophe with my ballpoint pen and checkbook in hand.

Don’t judge me just because I walk past the red kettle.

Why don’t they put it inside? It’s a stupid spot for it, outside.

The poor bell ringers have to stand out there in the cold and snow. And no one wants to dig out money when they are on their way to the car.

If the Salvation Army really wanted to make some money, they would just stand by the cash registers. It’s much easier to write out a check or fork over a five-, 10-, or 20-dollar bill with your purse or wallet open and ready.

It’s all about location.

Then, when I am done buying my Christmas presents for my friends and families (which I will wrap in my home sipping hot chocolate, place under the decorated tree with twinkling lights, and give to them on Christmas day after stuffing ourselves with dinner and holiday treats, surrounded with love and laughter), I can conveniently slip them a donation.

But it won’t be convenient for the man who got laid off earlier this year to swallow his pride, dress his family in what coats they have, and take them to eat Christmas dinner at the local soup kitchen.

It won’t be convenient for the single mom to take the bus to the food shelf after her second shift to discover it is closed for Christmas.

It won’t be convenient for the homeless teenage girl with no place to go to start the new year in a gang and addicted to meth.

It won’t be convenient to take a minute, take off your gloves, and help fill that little red kettle.

But maybe that’s the point.

A check mailed to help a charitable organization or person in need will also get the job done, and is appreciated on the same level as dropping a few quarters in the kettle.

But maybe the kettle isn’t just there to help others.



It’s a sound that can resonate with all of us.

A sound that reminds us how much we have, and how lucky we are that our lives are so blessed we consider standing outside for a few minutes without gloves an inconvenience.

We will all walk past that kettle into the store to satisfy our wants this holiday season.

Whether or not you make a donation is not the point.

Let that sound and the bright red kettle remind all of us our help is needed by others all year round, and to be thankful for the blessings we do have, even before we enter the store to buy more.

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