For whom the bell rings

December 25, 2005|By RICHARD PRETORIUS

The man, in his late 30s perhaps, slowly made his way to the entrance of the Food Lion. He stopped before going in, leaned heavily on the crutch he had under his left arm and reached into his wallet for a few dollars to place in the red kettle. He had one leg.

The young mother put a coin in her toddler's hand, picked her up out of the shopping cart and coaxed her into dropping the shiny quarter in. Both smiled after the mission was completed.

A well-dressed woman said outside a craft store that she did not shop at the nearby mall because its stores were too pricey. She then put $20 in the bucket. A few moments later, another woman contributed $50, simply saying to the Salvation Army bell ringer, "Thank you for standing out here in this cold."

For the past few weeks, I have joined thousands of others across the country in participating in a rite that has become as much a holiday tradition as Christmas lights and eggnog. Salvation Army bell ringers - some paid, many volunteer - are as ubiquitous as mall Santa Clauses this time of year. And their mission certainly seems as magical.

In Winchester, Va., I have watched the best in human beings unfold as people from all walks of life have reached into their pockets or purses for loose change or ones, fives and twenties. Each donation brings a thank-you from me and, almost as often, a thank-you from the giver, as they obviously recognize the importance of the cause.

This part of the Shenandoah Valley, where factory and food service jobs abound, historically has a very low unemployment rate. But for many, wages do not keep up with the cost of living. As the Washington suburbs spread farther west, they bring with them higher housing costs and more expensive restaurants and retail venues. In places like this, poverty does not dwell in a public housing high-rise, but it is as real and painful as it is in Baltimore and Washington, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia. Just getting by is the common plight for many.

So perhaps the thank-yous also come because dropping money into the red kettles is one of the simplest ways to truly share the season's spirit with a neighbor. The giver knows the money will go to help feed, clothe, house or provide other services for needy people in the community, but they don't have any idea exactly whom. It is a truly anonymous act of charity that is being repeated everywhere a red-aproned Salvation Army worker stands.

I have rung the bell in front of a liquor store, where one gentleman arrived in a cab, bought his booze and then dropped some money in the bucket. There have been numerous discussions on the Redskins' playoff chances and the political-correctness-run-amok debate of the season, whether to wish each other "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." And there has been an unobstructed view on the best - and sometimes worst - in human nature.

People have gotten out of their BMWs and SUVs, heard the bells ringing them toward the store doors and then walked by as if the kettle and the bell ringer did not exist. Others have arrived in decade-old cars in need of repair, heard the sounds from afar and folded dollar bills to put in the bucket while making their way through the parking lot.

What I learned in the early 1990s while writing about the Great Flood in the Midwest and have relearned every time a huge need occurs, whether after tsunamis in Asia or breached dams in New Orleans, has been repeated here: Those with the least to give are often the most generous.

One teen dropped some change in the bucket on his way into Wal-Mart, added some more upon leaving the store and then returned a few minutes later with dollar bills to contribute. A local businessman put $5 in the kettle by Food Lion, saying he does the same thing whenever he sees a Salvation Army kettle anywhere on his day's travels. It was not bragging but a recognition that it was important for him to give whenever he could.

After her mother had contributed a dollar, a little girl asked why she did that. "So other little girls would get presents for Christmas," was the reply.

Giving whenever and whatever you can and meeting the needs of those less fortunate define the spirit of all the bell ringing - and the season - from Baltimore to Boston, from Winchester to Washington state.

Despite my layers of shirts and sweaters and four pairs of socks, outdoor bell ringing left my body cold. But my heart was warm - as good a gift as any to receive this special time of year.

Richard Pretorius teaches journalism courses at Catholic University. His e-mail is

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