The Red Kettle: A Christmas Icon

Bell Ringer

Growing up, Christmas was a special time for me. It was the one day a year that our entire family, no matter how far apart, would come together to celebrate the holiday. I have a lot of nostalgic Christmas memories, but some of my favorites were during the times I volunteered in the community. I loved the idea that with my contribution, even as a child with no money and tiny hands, I could make a positive difference in the life of others. I loved helping in a myriad of ways, but I remember so vividly how excited I would get to see the Salvation Army’s red kettle in front of stores every year. First, I would hear the bell ringing, tipping me off that the red kettle was nearby. I would immediately look imploringly up at my mother, who was already digging around for change in her purse. Sometimes she would hand me cash and I would be thrilled. I would walk over to the bell ringer and slip whatever money I was given into the red kettle. They would smile brightly and thank me, and I’d glow inside knowing that our contributions helped someone somewhere.


Most people have favorite holiday memories as a child. Perhaps that is what makes the holiday so special – it is nostalgic, family-oriented and brings the entire community together. With that sense of community in mind, charities suddenly get large donations, non-profits get an uptick in volunteers and neighbors gift each other home-baked goods. Good deeds during the holidays are thoughtful and kind, but it can be difficult to help out the community year-round and still get to give a little something during the holidays. However, the Salvation Army makes doing just that as easy as sticking loose change in a bucket.


The red kettle is famous. Hanging outside store entrances, it is a gleaming beacon of the holiday season approaching, and frequently spotted in Christmas movies. Throwing in loose change, or dollar bills makes you feel good because you’re doing something important. It’s such an easy way to give back to the community. Even when the holidays are said and gone, the money donated during that time is used every day for the rest of the year. It provides housing, food and clothing assistance to those in need, youth services, rehabilitation, counseling and spiritual care, as well as emergency disaster relief. Overall, fundraising during the Christmas season is responsible for around 70 percent of the funds allocated throughout the year. 


For those wanting to contribute even more and take it a step further, volunteering as a bell ringer can be highly rewarding. Each year, several people sign up to ring the bell for the red kettle. Some have been doing it for many years, like Tony Morgan.


Morgan first decided to become a bell ringer because of need and friendly competition. Tony was the former chairman of the Smith County Salvation Army. Being on the board, he understood how much the donations earned through the red kettle project helped the community and wanted to volunteer his time. There was also some in-office competition that made giving back even more fun. 


Morgan has volunteered as a bell ringer for half a decade. Year after year he would stand in front of the stores, ringing the bell and collecting donations. Morgan explained that he was surprised by how many people would come up to him and tell him that the Salvation Army helped them in many varying ways. 


According to Captain Robert Parker, the commanding officer of the Salvation Army in Tyler, this openness is quite common. 


“It’s a cool experience, especially for those who are doing it for the first time, because people will come up to you and tell you stories about how the Salvation Army has helped them,” Parker said. “They’ll tell you about the time they overcame addiction or alcohol abuse with the Salvation Army’s help, or they might tell you about how the Salvation Army gave their grandpa donuts during World War II.”


Morgan said bell ringers and volunteers are always needed. He recommends trying it out, even if you only have an hour to spare. 


“Put an hour into it and if you have young kids – bring them,” Morgan said. 


Morgan said the kids love helping and it’s a great opportunity to show them that giving back can be fun, and hear the stories of those who were helped by the donations raised through projects like the red kettle.


By signing up to volunteer through the Salvation Army’s red kettle website, one can request certain hours and locations to ring the bell, and can choose whether to sign up as a group or an individual. As a group, families or co-workers can choose one kettle or more and each ring the bells. 


Like Morgan, Parker also recommends that families bring their children along to help.


“The kids can experience what it’s like to give back,” Parker said. “It’s a way to make their Christmas even more meaningful.”


According to Parker, there are typically between 30 and 40 red kettle locations across Smith County each year. Several hundred volunteers are needed to fill the locations for the red kettle and to raise enough funds to meet their yearly goal. 


These funds are allocated to fulfill different needs throughout the year and will go directly to Smith County residents who need help. Local community members are incredibly giving and this area is no stranger to raising the funds needed through creative and unique ways through the red kettle project.


In fact, East Texas has had quite its fair share of the bell-ringing spotlight. In 2013 Andre Thompson broke the world record in a three-way tie for the longest amount of time ringing the bell consecutively. He rang the bell non-stop outside of Walgreens on Rieck Road in Tyler for over 100 hours. In 2016, the Salvation Army recruited a few dogs to help them ring the bell. They were even specially trained to fetch donations from people.


This year, the Salvation Army will hold a big red kettle kickoff event at the Broadway Square Mall on Nov. 10, but the project won’t really begin until the day after Thanksgiving, when you will begin to see the shining red kettle in front of stores and hear the ringing of the bells as soon as you step foot out of the car. 


Having appeared in several Christmas movies, the red kettle might just be one of the most famous symbols of the impending holiday. The red kettle project first started in 1891, and has been making appearances in films and outside of stores ever since.


It all began with Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee, who noticed many individuals in San Francisco were going hungry. He resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner for the people in the city, but he had to find a way to fund the mission. He came up with idea of using a pot to collect donations. The kettle was soon full and provided countless help to those who would have otherwise gone hungry on Christmas that year. The idea took off and began popping up in states across the nation. In East Texas, the red kettle has made its appearance every holiday season for over 100 years.


In an ever-changing community and society, it is nice to know that one thing remains constant. Every year around Christmas time, the bell will start to ring, calling once again for people to come together, help each other and unite as one. Throw loose change in a bucket, ring a bell, help a neighbor, and give someone another chance to make even more Christmas memories this year.


To volunteer as a bell ringer go to



Red Kettle by the numbers


1891: The year the first red kettle project started. 


70: The percentage of total annual income the Salvation Army earns each year through the red kettle.


25: The number in millions of Americans assisted by the Salvation Army annually.  


127: Countries being served by the Salvation Army.


3,429: Active volunteers for the Salvation Army in Tyler.


35: Average number of locations across Smith County with red kettles.


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