To hear Bruce Bachman tell it, he’s just a guy with a bell, a red apron and a heart to serve who gives a little of his time during the holiday season in North Richland Hills, Texas.
He’s just one of the thousands of volunteer bell ringers who keep alive a 127-year tradition that the Salvation Army traces to Capt. Joseph McFee, who set out a large, iron kettle in 1891 to collect funds for a Christmas dinner in San Francisco. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, the change, bills and occasional large checks and gold coins that Americans drop into about 25,000 kettles from coast to coast amount to roughly $150 million, said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, the Salvation Army’s national community relations and development secretary.
Some bell ringers wish passers-by a heartfelt “Merry Christmas” — and hope the kettle fills. But many others, like Bachman, have honed strategies and routines to make the most of the uncompensated work — for the Salvation Army and for all who come within earshot.
Just before 10 a.m. on a busy shopping day, the 61-year-old consulting engineer arrives at a Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store with a mailbox-sized stereo, a box of Christmas CDs and a plastic baggie full of hard candy.
“I bring the candy to suck on so I don’t have to drink as much water,” Bachman explains. He knows he won’t have time for meals or bathroom breaks, so he tries to be prepared (eating a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns ahead of time).
“Christmas bells and Christmas kettles are synonymous with the Salvation Army,” said Busroe, an ordained minister for the group.
He’ll stand outside for eight hours and — as a mix of Bing Crosby, Mannheim Steamroller and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tunes plays — invite customers to donate to the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign.
“God bless you!” he tells a woman who pulls money out of her purse. “You have a very merry Christmas!”
“Hello, cutie!” he says in his best Donald Duck voice as 3-year-old Jubilee Longoria approaches the kettle with a handful of coins.
For the preschooler, the kettle and the bell are likely to become visual and auditory markers of the Christmas season, just as they have for generations before her.
Busroe heard one of those bells as he exited a subway station in New York recently, outside Macy’s department store. Some, he noted, believe that sidewalk Santa Clauses and Salvation Army solicitors in New York were the inspiration for the popular Christmas song “Silver Bells,” first recorded in 1950. (One of the song’s co-writers has disputed that.)
“Christmas bells and Christmas kettles are synonymous with the Salvation Army,” said Busroe, an ordained minister for the group, a Christian denomination that claims about two million members around the world and belongs to the National Association of Evangelicals.
The Salvation Army’s mission statement calls for it “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” (Though at times gay activists have called for boycotts of the kettle campaigns because the group believes gay sex to be a sin. Busroe blames the controversy on “misinformation and misconception.”)
“It’s all variety of walks of life and professions,” Busroe said of the volunteer bell ringers, most of whom do not belong to the Salvation Army church. “You have service clubs — Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Optimist — and many of them in a local community will have competitions” to see which can raise the most money.
“Church groups will take a kettle for a day, a week or an entire season,” he added. “It’s all different groups of people, and we’re constantly needing volunteers.”
The annual funds raised enable the Salvation Army USA to provide more than 56 million meals and 10 million nights of shelter as well as youth programs, summer camps and adult rehabilitation services, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based organization.