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A history of the bell ringers

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette George Casella of Montoursville mans the Salvation Army kettle at Walmart Thursday. George is a volunteer from the Eureka Lodge 335 of the Free and Accepted Masons in Montoursville.

When the sound of bells ringing can be heard at malls or outside stores, then you know the Christmas season is beginning.

In this area of the country, there are two main non-profits that employ bell ringers to usher in the holiday season. The Salvation Army and the American Rescue Workers use familiar figures to draw the community’s attention to the fact that poverty does not take a winter break.

The tradition of the Salvation Army’s kettle as the receptacle for collecting funds at the holidays goes back to the late 19th century, according to Major Donald Spencer, from the charity’s local office.

“Back in San Francisco in the late 19th century, there was the wharf and there was a Salvation Army office. They were doing the Salvation Army’s thing — it’s remarkable how little things have changed — helping homeless people, people on the street and widows,” he shared.

“They needed food for the meal and the officer had the idea to take the big kettle that they cooked the food in, bring it to the wharf, and the fisherman coming in would put some of their things in there. Gradually, that grew in San Francisco. Well, it went from food to money, but it was all that kettle. After WWI, it expanded exponentially throughout the country at the Salvation Army and that’s why we use kettles,” he said.

“It’s become part of Americana, and has spread throughout the world as a symbol,” he added. “Now, as Salvation Army officers, we see it as a part of Christmas for people. As a Salvationist and as a Christian, when you see that kettle, when you see us out there, it’s a reminder that the world is not so bad, God is still here, needy people can still get help, there’s still hope in the world.”

The American Rescue Workers, which was incorporated in this country in 1884 as the Salvation Army of America and in 1913 became a separate entity, the American Rescue Workers, chose a chimney for its holiday solicitation.

“As the Salvation Army had their kettles, we adopted a chimney,” said Dawn Astin, ARW’s business administrator, adding that the chimney is reminiscent of the American tradition of Santa coming down the chimney.

“We adopted the chimney to do our solicitations for the holidays in hopes that would pull on the heartstrings of those that were able to give so that we could be the Santa for those less fortunate,” Astin said.

“The sound of the bells, whether it’s our organization or any other, it kind of ushers in the holiday spirit. It introduces that festivity, that giving time, that ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men,’ “ Astin said. “I think there’s something about the ringing of the bell that introduces that to our society and to our community. reminding us once again that Christmas, the holidays, are coming and its a very needy time of year for many families,” she added.

Spencer’s wife, Major Paula Spencer, echoed Astin in expressing the need for the two groups to be Santa for members of the community that are in need, by providing meals for the holiday and toys for the children.

“I tell people that we’re just standing in the gap for Santa,” Paula Spencer said.

“The goal is that no child has to go without something special but also the family will get a meal,” Donald Spencer added.

Astin admitted that she is not a fan of Santa because “he’s not for the poor.”

“Santa doesn’t come to the poor homes,” she said.

“You should hear some of the stories of the people who live in our shelters and their Christmases down through the years with parents who have not been able to provide, or they have substance abuse problems or it was a very dysfunctional home and there was no Christmas,” Astin said.

She shared the story of a woman who had been a resident at one of the Rescue Workers’ shelters.

“One year, Christmas Eve, she took a piece of tinsel and did a shape of an outline on her wall and made a little Christmas tree. I do not remember where she said she got gifts from, but she was in the middle of her addiction and there was no money. Somehow, I don’t know how, she got gifts and that was their Christmas, that little tinsel tree taped to the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree,” Astin recalled. “That’s all she had.”

“And that’s the reason for the American Rescue Workers,” she added.

Paula Spencer shared a similar story from a woman she met early on in her ministry.

“There was an adult woman at the time and she said to me, ‘I hate Christmas.’ I said, ‘Why do you hate Christmas? I love Christmas, it’s so great.’ She said, ‘Because we were so poor and I didn’t know it. When I’d ask for anything, just something little — I wasn’t asking for anything big from Santa — we wouldn’t even get that. And I just thought why were all my friends getting things from Santa and I’m getting nothing?’ That really got to me,” Paula Spencer said.

Both Astin and the Spencers described the experience of being a bell ringer as humbling.

“You’re standing there ringing a bell to remind people that there are others that are less fortunate than you. Trying to make eye contact with people that walk by you is a very challenging and humbling experience,” Astin said.

“Some people don’t want anything to do with making eye contact with you. They’ll walk to the other side of the mall to avoid making eye contact with you. Many are not in a position to give, but a lot of time do give. We do find a willingness in the community to give,” she added.

Both organizations stressed that this area is a “really giving community.”

“Our biggest challenge her — volunteers are always a challenge, especially as the weather gets colder, and finding places to place the kettle,” Donald Spencer said.

He noted that as stores close, there are fewer places to use as sites. Also as society becomes cashless, this presents a challenge, although he noted that the Salvation Army has begun offering the ability to pay with a phone. Spencer explained that there is a plastic disc on the kettles which, when touched by a phone, initiates the process of paying by phone.

This year the Salvation Army anticipates serving over 350 families during the holiday season with toys and food baskets.

The Rescue Workers offers a community Christmas dinner in addition to providing food baskets and toys for those in need. Approximately 420 families have signed up with the Rescue Workers to receive toys and food this Christmas.

Both groups rely on the donations that the bell ringers bring in to offset the costs of the holidays as well as to help with operating costs throughout the year.

Although the majority of the food for the food baskets for both charities is purchased from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, there is still a charge. The toys for children come from Toys for Tots and various businesses and service groups in the area that hold toy drives.

“Bell ringing and putting funds into the chimneys has always been an avenue of income for us so that we could buy turkeys and buy food products for the food baskets,” Astin said.

To be a bell ringer just requires a commitment, there is no training. All that’s needed is a willingness to serve.

“We’re not just helping people who are desperate, but we’re also helping people who want to help people, who want to connect with people they don’t always see,” Donald Spencer said.

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