Salvation Army Christmas

Five Things You May Not Know about The Salvation Army and Christmas

on December 23, 2020

(Republished and updated from Christmas 2019, here are five actual things you may not know about The Salvation Army and Christmas.)

Every Hallmark Christmas movie you have ever seen (or ever not seen) to the contrary, only The Salvation Army uses red Christmas kettles to collect donations. And Santa Claus is NOT involved.

It’s not just Hallmark Christmas movies. Pretty much every film that involves Christmas seems to feature the iconic Santa Claus ringing a bell at a kettle for some vague and nameless charity. Only that’s not really an icon. NO! The red Christmas kettle is The Salvation Army’s trademark.

In a December 4, 2019 post entitled “How the Salvation Army’s red kettles became a Christmas tradition,” Diane Winston, author of Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of The Salvation Army, tells of the origin of the Christmas kettle with the coming of The Salvation Army to America in the late 1880s. It all started with a crab pot in San Francisco. . .

By 1891, Salvationists had outposts nationwide. In San Francisco, Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee was eager to serve a Christmas feast for a thousand of the city’s poorest residents. Frustrated by his lack of success, he decided to improvise. Grabbing a crab pot from the local wharf, he hung it from a tripod at a busy intersection. Above the pot was a sign: “Fill the Pot for the Poor — Free Dinner on Christmas Day.” McFee’s campaign was a success.

Word spread and the kettles soon provided Christmas dinners for thousands nationwide.

Although a Kiwanis or Rotary Club member volunteering his time at a kettle may appear in the guise of Santa as a novelty, for the most part the kettles are presided over by people wearing either Salvation Army uniform or some sort of Salvation Army insignia. The official terminology for the occupation is actually “standing kettles.”

When I was in high school I had the interesting experience of standing kettles at what was billed as The World’s Largest Christmas Kettle. It was a giant red fiberglass bowl about 7 feet across, hanging on a frame with large metal chains, about 4 feet high. The kettle was located outside of John Wanamaker’s department store at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania. The most exciting moment was when someone threw their cigarette into that large bowl and some of the paper money caught fire! But Santa never showed up. Not once!

You can find both bell ringers and horn blowers at Salvation Army Christmas kettles.

Most of the time Salvation Army kettle workers are “bell-ringers.” But if The Salvation Army corps (church) is lucky enough to have a band, they may have a brass quintet or at least a lone cornet to serenade passers-by.

I should know! Having grown up in The Salvation Army I did my share of both bell-ringing and playing 3rd Part Bb from The Salvation Army Christmas Tune Book (also known as “the green book”) at the kettles.

Particularly when I was at Eastern Nazarene College outside of Boston and standing kettles at the South Shore Plaza, I had the opportunity to play with musicians far beyond my own abilities. One Christmas it was three guys from Berklee School of Music. They liked to improvise (no kidding, we’re talking about Berklee!). So we would play “Go Tell It on the Mountain” rag-time style, and we would mess with people’s minds by cutting off “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” right before the last note, as in: “tell me if you —– .”

Today, when my Anglican self passes Christmas kettles, I always stop and drop something in the pot. But, to my daughter’s consternation, I always have to reminisce with the kettle workers about what it was like in my day, and how lucky they are to be ringing a bell or playing a horn in temperate Northern Virginia instead of Boston. My daughter says it’s TMI when I tell that when I played my euphonium horn at the kettle, the valves would stick because my saliva would freeze.

Sometimes the musicians at the kettles and I compare notes (no pun intended). Every Salvation Army brass player that has done kettles will tell you that the worst is when it it’s 8:45 PM, you’ve been playing since 7PM or earlier, and someone will come along and ask for “Silent Night.” Those E’s and F’s above high C are killers when your chops are shot! “O Holy Night” is another killer that for some reason people want to hear at the end of the night, as well.

Actual Salvation Army musicians are featured playing Christmas carols in many films.

The first time I remember seeing this for myself was in the Sydney Pollack 1975 political thriller Three Days of the Condor with Robert Redford. The heck with Robert Redford! There were Salvation Army musician friends of mine singing and playing “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” in the last dramatic scene of the film!

So that one’s not so Christmassy — being about the CIA and secret government dirty deals and all. But The Salvation Army NEOSA (North Eastern Ohio) Youth Band is in one of the best-loved films of all time. In A Christmas Story, (1983) they march in the Christmas parade and play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, there are no Salvation Army uniforms among the Whos of Whoville. But it is a real Salvation Army band playing at the beginning of the movie.

There are many more. The Salvation Army has created a list of such appearances. None is as funny as the Salvation Army and Mr. Bean in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean!” Rowan Atkinson becomes the temporary Salvation Army bandmaster (conductor) and the quality of the playing, following the every move of the baton, is as impressive as it is funny. But to those of us familiar with quality of Salvation Army bands, it is not surprising at all.

The well-beloved Christmas song, “Silver Bells,” was inspired by the Salvation Army Christmas kettle bell-ringers.

This was new one to me. I just discovered this while reading about the film The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) in which Bob Hope tries to raise money for a gambling debt with a bell ringers’ con game. “Silver Bells” was written for the film. It makes sense when you think about it. There are all kinds of Christmas bells, but it’s pretty obvious that the bells that you hear “on every street corner” at Christmas time are The Salvation Army bells.

“Silver Bells” was written by Ray Evans (lyrics) and Jay Livingston (music). These two wrote such great songs as “Que Sera Sera,” “Buttons on Bows,” “Tammy,” and “Mona Lisa.” (They also wrote “Mr. Ed” with Jay Livingston singing their theme song on the show.)

Livingston and Evans were reluctant to write a new Christmas song because everyone likes the old ones. Evans told the story:

As Paramount was insistent that the song they composed for the film had to be a Christmas song, they went ahead and began work on one.  The bell on their desk provided the inspiration, as they then thought of the Salvation Army volunteers that would “tinkle” their bells outside of stores and on street corners, soliciting donations.  Thus, a song was written about it and the “feeling of Christmas” these bell ringers contributed too.

Livingston and Evans had first thought of another name for the song that may not have rendered it the iconic Christmas song it is today (or may have made it even more of an icon?). They called the song “Tinkle Bells,” until Livingston brought it home. Then, explained Evans:

. . . fortunately for all of us, Jay told his wife about the song, including their name for it. Asking Jay if he was out of his mind, she proceeded to inform him of the slang meaning of ‘tinkle’ understood by most people.

Lucky for the world that Jay accepted his wife’s criticism of the title with maturity. He and Ray loved the music and melody of their song, “Tinkle Bell”. The word ‘Tinkle’ was replaced with ‘Silver’ and leaving the rest of the lyrics untouched. . .

Along with Johnny Marks (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”), Livingston and Evans were Jewish songwriters that gave us some of the most famous and beloved of Christmas songs.

And finally,

For many years it was the tradition for Salvation Army band members to get up at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day and wake the town with the Christmas song “Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.”

Maybe this is how Salvation Army band members get back at the people who ask for “Silent Night” at the end of a long night! They come and wake them up with a rousing rendition of “Christians Awake.”

Nowadays the song gets played in the more sociable environs of a symphony hall or church building than out in the village square. And many of these concerts feature the arrangement of “Christians Awake” that opens with a magnificent fanfare, by Paul Lovatt-Cooper. But I did find one YouTube video of Salvation Army officer Major Alan Young playing it on his cornet for the village of Pill in North Somerset, England.

I never got the opportunity to do this, but I do love the song! Like so many Christmas carols, these words  by 18th century poet John Byrom are theologically profound. And this Christmas, with the repressiveness of virus rules and regulations, it is even more poignant.

Christians, awake, salute the happy morn,
whereon the Savior of the world was born;
rise to adore the mystery of love,
which hosts of angels chanted from above;
with them the joyful tidings were begun
of God incarnate and the Virgin’s son. . . .

Oh, may we keep and ponder in our mind
God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind!
Trace we the babe, who hath retrieved our loss,
from his poor manger to his bitter cross.
Tread in his steps, assisted by his grace,
Till man’s first heavenly state again takes place.

Then may we hope, th’angelic throngs among,
to sing, redeemed, a glad triumphal song;
he that was born upon this joyful day
around us all his glory shall display;
saved by his love, incessant we shall sing
eternal praise to heav’n’s almighty King.”

  1. Comment by Elizabeth J Roby on December 28, 2019 at 9:04 am

    Thank you, Faith! You did let people know that we have some excellent musicians in our Salvation Army bands! I remember playing where my valves froze up. Now I am in the South where this would be unusual. And at my age, I would not be outside in that weather! Now you need to let people know just how exhausting a Salvation Army Christmas effort is!

  2. Comment by Faith McDonnell on January 2, 2020 at 2:38 pm

    Ha ha! Yes. It was exhausting to me, even as a kid. And I gave a bit of that flavor in my “Christmas Lights” article, too, on how my house NEVER had Christmas lights because my parents were too busy with Salvation Army Christmas effort to put up lights. (we did have those electric candles in the windows though.)

  3. Comment by Dan W on December 28, 2019 at 9:32 am

    Thank you Faith, and Merry Christmas 🙂

  4. Comment by Faith McDonnell on January 2, 2020 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks, Dan! You, as well, and Happy New Year!

  5. Comment by David on December 28, 2019 at 10:30 am

    I was a bit taken back with the bell ringers began dancing to recorded music some years back. Dancing was a sin to early Methodists and I imagine the Army too given its ancestry.

  6. Comment by Faith McDonnell on January 2, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    Ha ha ha! Yes. I am glad that my mother…and especially my father! had been Promoted To Glory before all that started. They would not have dealt with that very well. Of course, we have had choreographed “Timbrel” playing in The Salvation Army for decades and decades. But that has gotten more edgy as the years have passed, too. As an ardent timbrelist, I like it!

  7. Comment by Ruth Ann on December 30, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    Love, love this post, Faith!! It has been far too long. Unfortunately in the small town where I now live, I really miss the ringers during Christmas shopping in Memphis, and like you, would always drop a little something in the kettle.

    Hope you and yours have a wonderful 2020!

  8. Comment by Faith McDonnell on January 2, 2020 at 2:43 pm

    Awww! Ruth Ann! Come back and see me sometime. We’ll go to the Old Ebbitt’s Grill again! Hope you are well. Happy New Year and every blessing in Jesus! xoxo

  9. Comment by Michael Hernandez on January 2, 2020 at 8:03 am

    Few years ago in London passed a Salvation Army band exiting their building on a Sunday morning. Their neighborhood had been encroached upon by Muslim shopkeepers. But they proudly and loudly played their Christian hymns

  10. Comment by Faith McDonnell on January 2, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    Awesome! I’m so glad to hear that, Michael. We need to be loving, but we cannot give ground. Especially GROUND. Because land/territory is very important to certain perspectives. Long may that Sally Army band play those clarion calls to the King of Kings! Happy New Year!

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