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The Red Kettle: A Christmas Tradition

"Through it all though, The Salvation Army will continue to evolve, innovate and do the most good!" by Major Jason Swain

They start showing up in the fall and by Thanksgiving, they’re everywhere. You can hear the bells ringing outside nearly every retail store. They come in different sizes and configurations. Some are heavy cast iron, some are aluminum and some are plastic, but they are all red. They are the iconic Salvation Army Red Kettles. But where did this beloved tradition begin?

In 1891, Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee was searching for a way to provide hot meals to the poor in San Francisco. McFee, who was from Scotland, recalled a charity “pot” that was often placed on the Fishermen’s Wharf to collect money for families of those men lost at sea. This inspired him to find an old iron crab pot and head to the local San Francisco wharf. After he collected enough money, he packed up his pot and used the proceeds to provide hot meals for the poor.

Soon this idea was duplicated all over the Bay Area. One of the original slogans was “Keep the Pot Boiling,” with a purpose of providing hot meals at Christmas to the poor. Later on, the kettles were painted bright red and those managing the effort began ringing bells to draw attention. Before you knew it, red kettles could be found just about anywhere. In no time, the Salvation Army Red Kettle was seen as an indispensable part of Christmas. The kettles inspired the Christmas song, “Silver Bells,” and in a lot of popular movies and television programs, you can spot a red kettle or two.

As the American retail landscape changed, so did the Army. Soon street corner kettles were becoming a rarity and kettles were setup inside of malls and shopping centers. Corporate partnerships helped to secure permission across the country, and a few locations held elaborate Kettle Kickoff celebrations. National Advisory Board member Jerry Jones (owner of the Dallas Cowboys) proposed that The Salvation Army hold a National Kettle Kickoff at the Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game. For over 20 years, thousands of people have seen the Army featured during the televised halftime show.

With new changes, the Army was pressed to find an alternative to the traditional Christmas kettle. Various ideas have been tried over the years, like collecting old gift cards, credit card terminals to kettles, virtual kettles and even a few unmanned kettles. Now every kettle sign and billboard advertises the text-to-give option.

As we look to the future, the red kettle may be in some jeopardy. The advent of COVID-19 has changed all our lives, and retail establishments may not allow kettles at their locations. There are concerns for workers’ safety and the possible contamination of the cash collected, not to mention maintaining a safe distance and health concerns especially during the winter months. Through it all though, The Salvation Army will continue to evolve, innovate and do the most good! 

Photo provided by National Headquarters Archives

This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue of The War Cry.

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