The sound of ringing bells has become synonymous with Christmas. Not only for the popular “Jingle Bells” tune and the bells magically ringing from Santa’s reindeer-driven sleigh, but for Salvation Army bell ringers tending red kettles. While you’re probably familiar with this iconic Army tradition, YS is going deeper—bringing to light the kettle’s intriguing history, star-studded entourage, surprising facts, and unparalleled impact.
The Salvation Army’s National Archives hold several origin stories of the Christmas kettles, and each differs quite a bit on the details. What we do know is that it most likely originated in San Francisco in the early 1890s.
One tale recounts the events of a dark and stormy night before Christmas, when shipwrecked sailors took refuge at a nearby Salvation Army shelter. The country was in a state of serious economic depression—the Panic of 1893—so resources were slim. On top of that, the Army’s shelter was already struggling to feed thousands of needy people who came through its doors. That night, with the shipwrecked guests added to the mix, the food supply ran out.
To save the day, a young woman picked up the soup kettle and ran out to the streets in the bitter cold. She posted a sign reading, “Keep the Pot Boiling!” With her hurried enthusiasm and trusty kettle, she collected enough money so that everyone had plenty of soup that night.
1,000 FOR CHRISTMAS
Another story—often cited as the most accurate one—claims that Captain Joe McFee started the kettle movement. Before becoming an officer, McFee was a sailor in Liverpool, England. Each port he visited had one thing in common: countless people who were down on their luck. Remembering them, McFee was moved to action. Before the Christmas of 1891, he resolved to feed 1,000 needy people a free Christmas dinner.
How he decided to collect money with a kettle was inspired by memories of a restaurant he frequented—Simpson’s. The establishment kept “Simpson’s Pot” outside to gather charitable donations from passers-by. Simple but effective, the collection ensured those inside and out of the restaurant were fed well.
A RECORD-SETTING POT OF SOUP
What the differing tales do confirm is that by 1895 the trend had caught on to 30 corps on the west coast. Today kettles have spread not only across the US, but internationally as well. Not bad for a humble idea!
Nowadays, the Red Kettle Campaign, which normally runs from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, is the largest and longest-running fundraiser of its kind. Last year, 25,000 volunteers in the US helped raise $147.3 million through the campaign. Besides being more money than most people have seen in their lives, this marked the fourth highest total the campaign has seen in its history.
However you spin in, it’s a huge chunk of change; and The Salvation Army puts it to good use. All those quarters and dimes provide toys for kids, coats for the homeless, food for the hungry, and countless social service programs year-round. Whether accompanied by a bell or a band, the red kettles are all about sacrificing time and comfort to give back to others. What better way is there to honor the birth of the Savior, than by loving others as He commanded (Matthew 22:36-40), and as He did when He became incarnate for us (John 3:16)?
THINK YOU’RE A KETTLE WIZ?
It’s time to put your knowledge to the test. Keep in mind, there may be more than one right answer.
Spare change isn’t the only thing to land in the kettles. Which of the following has also been found inside?
A. Real wedding rings. It’s unclear if these slipped off people’s fingers, or if they were intentional donations.
B. Plastic rings. A sweet gift from a small child, or someone disposing of vending-machine jewelry?
C. Gold coins. First dropped in the kettles by mysterious donors in 1982.
Emma Kunkle Devine was the first bell ringer, according to The Associated Press. Who else made the news for tending kettles?
A. A German wire-haired pointer named Providence. She rang the bell with her mouth, and was once handed a $100 check for the kettle. She was a bell ringer for at least three years in Kansas.
B. A parrot named Wally from San Diego. His owner trained him to grab coins from people’s hands with his beak and drop them in the kettle beside him. Wally earned $378.27 for the Army. His owner also trained him to say, “Merry Christmas” after dropping the coins in.
“Silver Bells” may be a sweet song, but not everyone loves the ring-a-ling of bells in the city. Which of these characters couldn’t take the noise?
A. A mall Santa in Missouri who dealt with too many whiney kids in 1976. He got in a fight with his brother over the phone before starting work, and ended up screaming at a bell ringer for “causing [his] headache” after his shift.
B. An artist who had her work on display at a mall in 1970. She complained so loudly about the noise near her exhibit that a community service organization (that was volunteering at the nearby kettle) created a mythical award—the Ebenezer Scrooge Award—just for her.
RINGIN’ IT IN
A kettle and a sign were pretty good for gathering donations, but in 1901, a cadet had a more attention-grabbing idea. Emma Kunkle Devine “was the one who came out with the bell and rang it for the first time” (The Associated Press, 1984). Her idea attracted more donors in New York’s Bowery district, and it was a huge success. So much so, that it’s now hard to imagine a kettle without a bell ringer.
Did you know? When Devine tended a kettle on Wall Street, John D. Rockefeller—founder of the Standard Oil Company, one of the world’s wealthiest people, and the guy you know from the Monopoly box—dropped $20 in her kettle.
Rockefeller wasn’t the only public figure to grace the kettle scene. Since 1997, the Army’s Red Kettle Kickoff during the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game has ensured the kettles shine among plenty of stars. Here are just a few:
- Eric Church
- Luke Bryan
- Selena Gomez
- Kenny Chesney
- Enrique Iglesias
- The Jonas Brothers
- Kelly Clarkson
- Carrie Underwood
- Sheryl Crow
- Jessica Simpson
- Reba McEntire
Recognize this curly-haired wonder girl? Probably the most famous child star of all time, Shirley Temple made her kettle debut in the 1930s.
Answer Key: 1) All of the above 2) A 3) B
—Mariam Aburdeineh, Assistant to the YS Editor