How Salvation Army's Red Kettles Became A Christmas Tradition

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Diane Winston, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

(THE CONVERSATION) Tinseled trees and snowy landscapes are not the only signs of the upcoming holiday season. Red kettles, staffed by men and women in street clothes, Santa suits and Salvation Army uniforms also telegraph Christmastime.

The Army is among America’s top-grossing charities. In 2015, its 25,000 bell-ringers helped raise an all-time high of US$149.6 million. That was part of the year’s almost $3 billion revenue from bequests, grants, sales, in-kind donations and investments as well as direct contributions.

Kettles for Christmas dinner

Among the Salvation Army's early outreaches were Christmas dinners for the urban poor. But finding funds for food and gifts was difficult.

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.

Today, many contributors do not realize the Army is a church.

The Army remains a familiar symbol for religious and philanthropic outreach. And this holiday season, Grammy-award winning singer Meghan Trainer kicked off the 2018 Red Kettle Campaign during the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game halftime show.

Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee’s legacy lives on – providing inspiration to millions of Americans.