“I have a recurring holiday dream. In it, I spend a day visiting every Salvation Army bell ringer in the city of Chicago. I drop some change in the kettles and offer those kind souls a firm handshake and a sincere thanks for all they do. And then I take their bells. I take their loud, incessantly clanging bells and I gather them up and throw them all into Lake Michigan.
It’s probably not the nicest of holiday dreams, but it’s mine, and I am who I am – a guilty man at Christmastime who loves the ringers but hates the rings. We inhabit a horribly noisy world. Ringing cell phones. Rumbling traffic. The wails of Biebers and Cyruses pouring from car stereos. Exiting a loud, bustling store, the last thing I want is to be greeted with the CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! of a brass bell, no matter how well-intentioned that bell may be. Besides, aren’t the big red kettle and the Salvation Army sign and the person standing there God-blessing everyone enough to draw attention? Do we really need an audible signal as well?
Determined to rid the world of unsolicited street ringing, I contacted the national headquarters of the Salvation Army. Understandably protective of their signature bells, they weren’t thrilled to hear from me, but they did offer some history:
It was December of 1891 in San Francisco when the first Salvation Army kettle was deployed, thought up by a Salvation Army captain who hoped to provide a free Christmas dinner for the city’s poor. He needed donations, so he placed a pot in “a conspicuous position” at a busy spot near a ferry landing.Capt. Joseph McFee’s idea worked and soon spread to Salvation Army locations across the country. Nice story, I thought, but it didn’t include any mention of a bell. Gotcha, Salvation Army!Upon further archival review, the folks at the national headquarters found that the first recorded reference to a bell came in 1902, when a sketch of a bell ringer was published on the front cover of The War Cry, a Salvation Army publication.
So, it took more than a decade for bell ringing to become part of the deal. That sounded conspiratorial enough. I was prepared to launch a campaign encouraging the Salvation Army to return to its true, bell-less roots. All I needed was proof that bell noise is harmful. So I contacted Tracy Hagan, an audiologist at Northwestern University’s Audiology Clinic. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: Would you say the ringing of Salvation Army bells is a threat to our hearing? Hagan: No. Me: DRAT! She went on to explain that each person’s hearing mechanism (I believe that means ear) is different, and a sound can impact different people in different ways.
“It’s somewhat individual,” she said. “And the psychological reaction people have is definitely something unique to each person. Do they associate the sound with something positive or something negative?” At that point, I was pretty sure she was trying to psychoanalyze me, so I got off the phone before she brought up my childhood.
There was one more call to make. The Chicago-area Salvation Army headquarters. The national folks had been pretty savvy, but maybe I could trip up the locals. I got divisional commander Lt. Col. Ralph Bukiewicz on the phone and told him I loved his organization and all it does, but that I wanted him to immediately halt all bell ringing because it really bothers me. Without missing a beat, he said: “Is the bell annoying? Yeah, after awhile it becomes annoying.” I WON! Then he continued: “But is a hunger pang annoying? You bet it is. Is the threat of being homeless annoying? Even more so. For me, whenever that annoying ringing keeps going, it really is an awareness issue. What we’re trying to do is not annoy but bring attention.”
Uh-oh. He also said there have been times when stores don’t want the bells ringing, so Salvation Army workers take the strikers out of the bells and shake them anyway, just to draw attention. Some have held a pingpong paddle in each hand, with the words “ring” on one and “a-ling” on the other. Bukiewicz said about half of the $12 million the Chicago-area Salvation Army hopes to raise this holiday season will come from red kettle donations. Way to lay a guilt trip on me, commander. Anything else? “The kettles and the bells are almost a protected identity of the Salvation Army’s fundraising efforts,” he added. “It’s not the most efficient way to raise money, but I think it’s a very proficient way to raise awareness.”
That left me and my tender ears and proclivity for whining with little more to say. Little more, except for this:
Ring on, good-hearted bell ringers. Ring on.”