November 24, 2004,
The morning air was bitter cold as I manned my red Salvation Army kettle in front of Columbia, South Carolina's Richland Mall. Though layered in three sweaters, an ear-warming skull-cap, and a bright red, Salvation Army apron over a heavy jacket, I found myself spending most of the pre-shopping hour huddled inside the mall's main entrance, sipping a cinnamon-flavored house blend from a local Starbucks and trying to stay warm.
Soon the crowds were flooding-in from points throughout the city, and I was back out in the cold, next to my kettle.
Forgetting to bring gloves, I kept one hand stuffed in my coat pocket while the other continuously rang the handbell. Whenever my bell-ringing fingers began to numb from the freezing temp, I switched hands.
I briefly considered why I was standing alone in the cold on a Saturday morning. There were so many other things I could be tending to. For that matter, I could be at home, snoozing late in my warm bed. Those thoughts would be long dissipated by the end of my two-hour bell shift. In fact, when the shift ended, I was sincerely eager for another.
Manning the kettle reminded me of a time 20-years-earlier standing guard at one of many posts in the Marine Corps. Though keeping the proverbial wolf away from the door will in my mind forever be the most noble calling for any American, I was somehow warmed by the idea that I had traded my rifle for a bell. Which brings me to the actual experience of ringing the latter:
Within a few short minutes of jingling the bell and watching my breath steam in the cold air, the first potential "giver" a man who I guessed to be in his mid-fifties approached.
"Mornin'," he said, as he reached into his pockets. Instead of pulling out a bill or some coins, he produced a pack of Marlboro Lights. Slipping one of the smokes between his lips, he smiled and continued, "Man, do I hate shopping."
Me too, I said.
"Yep, I'm from Rhode Island," he said as he lit the cigarette. "Been living down here for two years now. Shopping for the kids and grandkids. My wife actually does the shopping. I just come with her to the mall and wait outside the stores while she does the work. By the way, had any takers yet?"
Nope, I said, you're my first. He smiled.
After a few drags and a minute-or-two of small talk, the man crushed out the cigarette and stuffed a single dollar bill into the top of the kettle.
"Merry Christmas, friend," he smiled as he ducked back inside and disappeared into the throng of shoppers.
And so it went.
People passing and greeting, some stopping to say "hi" and wish me "Happy Holidays," just like the song.
Families bringing their children to the mall either smiled and waved or made it a point to stop and share with their children the importance and soulful reward of giving.
As dads reached for their wallets and moms rummaged through purses and shopping bags, children asked me about my handbell. A few, particularly the preschoolers and toddlers, reached for the bell. They were thrilled when I let them ring it.
Little boys seemed to stare at the kettle as if it were some magic pot-of-gold, whereas the little girls gingerly placed their nickels and dimes in the kettle then looked-up at me for approval.
Toddlers were a special treat. They knew I was not Santa Claus. They knew I was not an elf. But the awe in their faces clearly gave way to their utter belief that I was somehow connected to the North Pole.
Small children weren't the only reward.
Watching spirit-infused people, men and women, boys and girls no matter how old, how rich, how poor interact with me and others was something I cannot adequately describe, except to say that it was real and wonderful.
At one point, I noticed a seedy-looking teenage boy eyeing me, while apparently bracing from the cold in one of the recessed corners of the building. I must confess, I briefly considered the fact that he might be casing the area in hopes of making-off with my kettle.
When confident no one was watching him, the young man swaggered toward me with the air of a young buck approaching an older, dominant male.
I smiled and said, "good mornin'." He didn't respond.
Then without saying a word, he quickly stuffed several folded dollar bills into the kettle, and hurried away.
I felt both ashamed for pre-judging the kid and spiritually restored by his actions.
Elderly ladies then passed by, smiling and nodding.
"How can you stand this cold?" one asked.
"Oh, it's not so bad, ma'am," I said. "In fact, it feels pretty good."
For most Americans, Salvation Army bell-ringers are as much a part of the Christmas-shopping atmosphere as are bright little faces, twinkling lights, gingerbread smells, and Johnny Mathis's mellifluous strains of Winter Wonderland.
Unfortunately, this Christmas-season tradition may be going the way of so many others.
For the first time, Target stores will be banning bell-ringers and kettles from the front of its more than 1,300 retail stores coast-to-coast.
In 2003, the Salvation Army raised over $94 million in kettle-contributions. The loss of the Target kettles will reduce that number by nearly ten percent.
Target's official line is that they are simply adhering to a long-standing non-solicitation policy of which the Salvation Army has been an exception. And with other non-profits screaming for equal treatment, Target execs contend they had no choice but to ban the kettles. Others, however, suspect political correctness and political pressure.
"We really don't know why they just cut us out," says Miller.
Target's ban may be fair and legal, but certainly disheartening to both the Salvation Army and Target's patrons. "This is very disappointing," Annette Fowler, a Target patron who has been shopping at Target twice a week for several years, tells NRO. "I am seriously considering never shopping at Target again because of this decision, and I know many others who feel the same way."
According to an article in Saturday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, other national retailers with non-solicitation policies include Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Circuit City, Home Depot, Kohl's, Lowe's, and Toys-R-Us.
Such policies can be tough on nonprofits, which, in many cases, derive up to 85 percent of their overall funding from individual nickel-and-dime-givers.
Despite Target's ban on bell-ringers, the Salvation Army is optimistic.
Pop recording artists Beyonce Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child will launch the Salvation Army's 2004 "National Kettle Kick-off" during the Dallas Cowboys-Chicago Bears match-up, Thanksgiving Day. And the Salvation Army hopes to make-up the projected losses from Target stores this season at other stores and shopping centers, nationwide.
You can bet I'll be manning a kettle at one of them, not because I'm more benevolent than the next guy, but actually for a selfish reason: Fact is, what I receive in terms of passing smiles, kind words, good will, and a restoration of my faith in men and women at the most basic level, is far more than what I give by simply ringing a bell.
A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.