I am writing this essay right in the middle of the festive holiday season. I seldom go shopping, but at this time of year I am drawn to the stores now and again to secure gifts.

While there, I have been observing an interesting phenomenon. I’m not referring to the frantic shoppers or the commercialism of the season. Those things are so obvious as to need no additional comment. 

No, what I keep watching is the way people avoid any and all contact with the bell ringers standing beside the Salvation Army kettles. People will rush past, keeping several feet away as if to avoid entering the space of the bell ringer. They look away or stare straight ahead, being sure never to make eye contact. Some will even go to another entrance. 

There are exceptions to this, to be sure. Individuals will stop and put in their gifts, receiving in return a hearty Thank you and Merry Christmas!” Overall, however, avoidance rather than contact is the rule. 

I do not make this observation in any condemning way, for in other years I too found myself slightly uncomfortable as I made my way past this incessant reminder of the needs of the poor. I did not like being reminded of those living out of my sight who were hungry and needy. 

But all that has changed since I made a decision some time back to view those ringing bells and red kettles of The Salvation Army as my friends helping me to consider the poor. So nowadays, rather than trying to ignore them, I seek them out, always putting something into the kettle both when entering and when exiting the store. At one store especially the bell ringer always speaks out a cheerful God bless you” — prompting my wife to tease me about going to that store just to get another blessing.

Now I know that the total amount that I give in this way is minuscule and that this practice can run the risk of being tokenism, but it can also be a powerful reminder of my commitment to the bruised and broken of this world.

Compassionate Action

The social justice tradition is one of the dimensions of the spiritual life to which we are committed as disciples of Jesus Christ. This begins with compassion for the poor. This means far more than sentimentality. It means specific acts. It means explicit plans. It means particular people. 

We know, of course, that our concern for justice goes far beyond compassionate action, but compassionate action must always be at the heart of our commitment. If the red kettles of Christmas can remind us of this, they have served us well. Happy giving!

Published in Christmas War Cry 1993.

Text First Published November 1993