In the ring

“Hey you,” the random woman called from across the parking lot. “Wait a minute there. You’re doing it all wrong.”

Christmas shopping season had just hit full tilt, and there I was, 10 minutes into my first-ever shift as a Salvation Army bell ringer. Sadly, my new parking lot acquaintance had hit it on the head. Will’s career at the red kettle was off to a less than sterling start.

In those few minutes, I had already rung the little bell 1,246 times (who’s counting, right?), and only a few coins had fallen into the pot. To make matters worse, the audience in front of Durango’s favorite big box – the local Wal-Mart – was not impressed.

“At least you’re smiling,” one guy said as he kindly dropped two dimes and a penny into the kettle. Another dude gave up only a gruff giggle – the one that translates into “yeah, right” in man-speak.

Dozens didn’t even get that far as they headed straight for the fluorescent lighting. Eyes on the prize, large herds of humans blindly brushed past and rushed toward the automatic doors, desperate for TMX Elmo and the latest XBox vintage. One family of four even bumped into me – nearly knocking the kettle over – in their rush to stimulate the economy. Yep, in spite of my red apron and my endless tinkle, I had effectively become the invisible man. It was in that most desperate of moments that the yell came across the parking lot.

“You can’t just ring that thing,” the small woman said as she approached me and my little brass bell. “It takes a lot more than that.”

The fellow volunteer gently nudged me out of the way and took my spotlight. She then spied the Salvation Army Santa hat, where I’d carefully hidden in the front pocket of my apron. Her hand dove straight into the pocket (conveniently located at crotch level) and produced the fluffy surprise. In the next breath, my Swix ski hat was off my head and replaced by the red and white. With my costume complete, we moved into voice lessons.

“You have to holler out – no actually sing – ‘Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!’” she coached me. “Go ahead and get hollering … A little dance can also be helpful. One toe out. One toe in. Just kind of kick your feet around.”

I sat there dumbfounded, staring out open-mouthed. The bell was no longer ringing. The Santa hat was perched limply on my head.

“Get moving. Start dancing,” she responded. “Let’s hear some of that holiday cheer.”

I mustered a “Merry Christmas,” did a token dance step and managed to just barely pass her entrance exam. “OK, OK. Now let’s try this,” she interjected and broke into “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” And so it was that I found myself singing my best Burl Ives in front of hundreds of Wal-Mart shoppers.

Apparently satisfied, my mentor reminded me how crucial the ringer’s job before pointing it for the super center. As she vanished into the land of the rollback, she called, “Keep it up. I’ll be coming back to check on you.”

“How’s this for ‘Holly Jolly?’” I said to myself as I forked out 10 of my own dollars, greasing the slot with some green and getting the bell ringing again. I’m certain that Burl rolled over in his grave, but that’s also when something magical started to happen – donations started to fly into the red kettle. Singing or no singing, my unorthodox technique was working.

Mothers with children clinging to them would drop a fistful of bills into the slot; older folks would hear the ring of the bell, stop in their tracks and reach deep into their wallets; a man sporting biker gang colors and completely tattooed arms smiled and slid a 10-spot into the pot; elementary aged kids dipped into Sponge Bob wallets and put their own hard-earned into the kettle.

After each donation, I gave heartfelt thanks and sent people off with a “Merry Christmas.” And over the course of those 120 minutes, my bell rang tens of thousands of times (though my dancing shoes barely wiggled) and dozens of hands and hundreds of dollars went to the red tin. There, on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, something that can only be described as “Christmas Spirit” had taken hold.

And every single hand – whether it was three or 93 years old – was on the same page. Every single one dug deep and reached out for someone else in deeper need. Each of them understood that the bottom is never very far off – that a simple twist of fate is often all that separates the haves from the have-nots. At the end of my two hours, I realized my mentor had been right. This job was beyond important.

Since that first initiation, I’ve returned to the kettle two other times (always keeping Burl in the bag), reluctantly surrendering my apron and making successor promise to do a good job. During each of those high points of my holiday season, I’ve often wondered what became of the small woman, that ringer who showed me the way with her roundabout tutorial. My best guess is she’s still out there somewhere, wandering from kettle to kettle and still happily humming “Holly Jolly Christmas” for anyone who will listen.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows