Americans are giving people, never more so than at Christmas. We have it in us, and that alone offers hope for a return to unity. If political leaders disappoint, “We, The People” remain strong, perhaps strongest in this season.
One vivid example of who we are lies in the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle campaign. You have seen them, probably dropped a coin or bill into one. The effort kicks off each Thanksgiving and runs through Christmas, collecting – and reflecting – America’s generous spirit. There is something hopeful about those red kettles.
Antonio could be a football player, he’s big enough – with a smile to match. Perhaps 40, he rings a handbell – as his mother did – beside a red kettle, dreadlocks flowing over a collar pulled high against the cold. We are outside Washington DC but might as well be in Iowa, Wisconsin or Maine.
His voice has a deep, gravelly resonance, the cheering tempo, tone and timber of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas-singing voice. “You know, someone dropped a gold coin in this kettle last year,” he tells me, “and no one knows who …”
His eyes are alive, whimsy and wonder dancing in them, telling me miracles happen every day, even right here. He can attest to it. He loves what he is doing – and makes no secret of that love. There is something about him that emanates the Christmas spirit. In the downdraft of modern politics, it is good to see it.
He tells me how his mother taught him the joy of giving, and how this season lifts him. We talk about the kids for whom Christmas has added meaning – because of the kettles. As we talk, people wander by, dropping in a coin or bill, exchanging a smile and nod.
His stories – he has many – are more than calming. They are tales of hope, rewarded – not vexed, not dashed, but rewarded. They quiet my over-stirred soul. The world may be crazy, but there is sanity in people like Antonio, in his red kettle and his faith. Every contributor receives a smile – and more.
Collectively, more than three million volunteers allow the Salvation Army to bring hope to those most in need – and often last to ask. In 2017, the faith-based mission helped 23 million Americans, not only at Christmas, but year-round. They served 52 million meals, made possible 10 million nights of shelter, provided a quarter-million with disaster aid, gave almost half a million kids daycare or the chance for a summer camp experience.
During Christmas season, more than 4.5 million families get special Christmas gifts, while more than 1.5 million senior citizens receive medical and institutional help – often in response to dire needs.
What began as one kettle and the inspiration of one American sailor in 1891, soon spread from California to Boston. Today, the Salvation Army manages 7,600 national centers, assuring that Americans in need are not left in the cold – and especially not at Christmas.
Today, they offer everything from substance abuse treatment for 150,000 Americans battling addiction to tailored gifts under lighted trees – assembled by millions of caring hands for Christmas morning. Most surprising to me, gifts deposited in those red kettles stay local. Those who give – are giving to neighbors. Somehow, that makes the giving even more special.
So, as I part with Antonio, I cannot help thinking that he is why America is strong – he, the kettle, passersby, and the depthless generosity they represent. He reminds me – as the season does – that the best things really are invisible.
Like tendrils of a wandering winter wind, effortlessly sculpting drifts from a million scattered flakes, American generosity at Christmas shapes a million earnest prayers into hopes rewarded. America is a special place, an extraordinary place, a land filled with generous hearts and endless can-do.
That fact brings hope at Christmas, but also for our future. If we can help each other in this season of lights, we can surely find a way to return to unity. “We, The People” remain innately strong – and are reminded of that in this sea