COLUMN: Diary of a bell ringer
About 1-in-10 contributed, unless the weather was bad. If it was cold or rainy, almost 2-in-10 dropped something in the bucket. And the night I wore those silly reindeer antlers? Well, you can only imagine how that affected the giving spirit.
I don’t know why it took me 50 years to volunteer. Nudged by my faith to greater works, I called the Salvation Army in early December to serve as a bell ringer. They were delighted by the offer. After brief negotiations about time and place, I found myself in front of my neighborhood Kroger, on the Thursday night slot.
Bell ringers work in shifts. When I arrived at 6:25 p.m., my predecessor greeted me, smiled, and handed me the bright red vest and the bell. A uniformed Salvation Army Captain appeared to collect the filled bucket, and attached an empty one to the metal tripod that supported the organization’s logo. Seconds later, I was on my own.
There is no training, per se, but then again, it’s not that difficult a job, especially if you are a little bit of a ham. I started ringing, smiling, and wishing “Merry Christmas” to all. Minutes later, I got my first donation, a tightly folded dollar bill. I was off and running.
In the course of my two-and-a-half hour shift, I found many ways to ring the bell. Right-handed or left, back-and-forth or side-to-side. Swirling the bell produced kind of a soft, jazzy ring. I could ring by moving my wrist, or keeping my wrist stiff and swinging my arm. Or, I could keep my arm stiff, and ring by bouncing on my toes, which had the added benefit of generating extra body-warmth. A couple times, when no one was watching, I cut loose with a Gangnam-style dance, just to change the pace.
I made eye-contact with everyone who entered the store, and wished each a Merry Christmas. Only a few people made eye contact with me. Had they seen me dancing? My greetings elicited a variety of responses: “What’s up?” “Hey.” “How you doing?” Nods. Smiles. A few hearty “Merry Christmas to you.”
Anywhere from 100 to 150 people passed by each hour. Families were the most fun. Parents would give their kids change or bills and let them put the money in the bucket, instilling what I hoped would become a lifelong habit. There were some regular contributors. I learned to spot them yards away, as they reached into their pockets or purses to have a contribution ready by the time they reached me. Some promised to “catch me on the way out.” They always did.
My contribution to the Salvation Army was modest – about eight hours leading up to Christmas. I know I helped their very worthwhile mission, but I was the one who really benefitted. You can’t wish “Merry Christmas” to 500 people a night and not boost your holiday spirit. Many contributors were so heartfelt in their gratitude for my being out there that I felt embarrassed for not doing more. Some shared stories as they slid a bill into the bucket, telling me how blessed they were, or how important it was to give to others.
And the antlers? Now that was fun! The kids loved it. They’d point to me and smile at their parents and say, “Daddy, that man has antlers!” I, of course, would deny it, and then reach-up and touch my head and exclaim “Oh my gosh, I do have antlers.” We’d get a good laugh. One woman my age gave me a coy smile, put a $5 bill into the bucket and said, “I like a man who shows a little antler.” I took it as a complement.
Peter Stangel is senior vice president for the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. He lives in Aiken.