As I was getting my Mrs. Santa Claus outfit together, in the last few weeks, in preparation for volunteering to ring The Salvation Army bell this holiday season, I decided to discover the history behind The Salvation Army red kettle and the ringing of the bell.
Red Kettle History
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 for needy people to be 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.
But what about ringing the bell?
But where did the idea of ringing a bell come from? It was a young girl named Amelia. She was a Salvation Army cadet (Salvation Army officer in training) in 1900 from New York who bought a 10-cent bell to ring. The bell was a huge success and drew attention and donations from those who passed by. Not long after that, all cadets had bells.
That 10-cent bell quickly became associated with The Salvation Army kettle and the Christmas season. It had such a profound impact on people who walked by that the writer Jay Livingston accredited the classic Christmas song, “Silver Bells” to The Salvation Army bell ringing in the streets of New York. Today, a bell accompanies every Salvation Army kettle.
Donations at Christmas through The Salvation Army red kettles help support nearly 30 million people served by the Army through shelters, after school programs, addiction recovery programs, summer camps, disaster assistance and many other social services. And in today’s digital age you can even find a red kettle online. Eighty-two cents from every dollar donated into a kettle, whether online or on the street, go back into the community in which it was donated.
The Salvation Army are always looking for more bell ringers. You can start by looking here: RegisterToRing or contact your local chapter of The Salvation Army.
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