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A hood that was pulled up from a sweatshirt covered his head. To block the uncharacteristically cold wind that was blowing, he had a jacket tightened around him.
From beneath it I could see that familiar red apron indicating he was standing in the cold for a good reason—he was a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army.
I parked the car, listening as his bell filled the air with that familiar holiday sound. Walking up the aisle toward him, I started mentally digging through the contents of my purse. Among the wallet, tissue, lip-gloss, foundation, pens and other miscellaneous goodies inside, cash was not among them.
I rarely carry cash, something that’s hardly a problem until this time of year.
As I moved closer to the bell-ringer, I wasn’t sure if I should make eye contact or lower my head and walk on by. But then I remembered my time as a once-bell-ringer.
At a previous job in Kentucky, my employer signed our office up to be bell-ringers one holiday season. It was a cold December in Kentucky. A coworker and I signed up, bundled in heavy winter coats and gloves and headed out to the local big box store to ring that bell.
As newspaper people in a small town, lots of people knew us. I figured it would be a day of smiling, waving and how-do-you-do’s. And for the most part, it was.
But there were more people than I care to count, whom I knew one way or the other, who pulled their hoods or scarves up, and quickly headed into or out of the store without a word.
What is it about that ringing bell that makes people feel one way or another?
At the end of my long, cold shift, I handed off my bell to the next person and wondered how much cash I had raked in. It wasn’t me, I knew, it was the bell, but the dollar bills were poking back through the little slashed opening at the top, so I felt it must have been pretty good.
Thinking back to my time as a bell-ringer, I decided I couldn’t walk past the local bell-ringer without a significant acknowledgement he was there.
“Hello,” I offered with a smile.
“God bless,” he returned, still waving his bell back and forth.
I sighed as I went past, still feeling a cringe of guilt for my lack of cash and inability to drop something inside his bright red kettle.
After my purchase, I got some “cash back” and deposited a bit in the bucket on my exit.
With another “God bless,” and some acknowledgement wishing me a happy holiday, the bell-ringer turned the other direction, ready to greet the next person on his or her way into the store.
Back in my car, I breathed a sigh of relief, and headed off to my next destination. When I got there in front of another store my eyes fell on another bell-ringer. Like his predecessor, he was smiling and cheerfully ringing his bell.
My heart sank again. My cash was gone. My giving this time just done, and again I needed to move past another well-wisher, good-doer.
I wanted to exclaim, “I already gave,” as I went by, but I was afraid my stress may have startled him.
Instead I looked up and nodded. He was just as pleased, and whether or not I had just given, or had nothing to give, he didn’t care.
“Merry Christmas!” he returned with a big smile on his face, reminding me that is exactly what the holiday season is all about.