One on One: Bell ringing, begging and finding Christmas

By D.G. Martin

Chapel Hill, NC – “How about helping us ring the bell for the Salvation Army?”

It is Roland from my Rotary club. I have dodged that duty for years. But it is the kind of request you can’t turn down. Roland is nice, but he will remember if I say no.

So I tell him I’ll do it. And regret it before I finish telling him.

Why have I agreed to do this thing?

I think about the hour of wasted time I will spend, standing on a cold sidewalk in a college town beside a red Salvation Army pot that will hold the few coins that I will beg by ringing a bell in the faces of townspeople, professors, and college kids in the middle of exams.

Oh, the things we do because our friends ask us.

My time is worth too much to spend an hour on the street like a common beggar. Plus the time it will take to get downtown and get set up and then get back to work. Why won’t they just let me give them some money? Why can’t I just give them a big check and forget about the bell ringing?

After all, what right do I have to interrupt all these people minding their own business walking up and down the street? They don’t want to be hounded at Christmas time. They don’t want their peace interrupted by beggars like me.

“What makes me different,” I ask, “from the ordinary panhandler hustling for a little money for a cup of coffee?”

What could be sillier than a middle-aged man like me, with a frozen smile, ringing a bell in the face of every passerby?

But I do it. And I do more. I go to the attic and get a Santa Claus costume. I say, “It will add a little class to our begging effort.”

I also think, “If I wear the Santa outfit, nobody will recognize me!”

So, here I am. On the corner, with my Rotary partner Donald. I am ringing the bell–harder and harder to get attention. He is smiling and wishing everybody Happy Holidays.

Why am I doing this?

Wait a minute. Look at what is happening.

They are giving.

These tough professors. These busy townspeople. These rough hard working service people. These visitors from out-of-town. These students in the middle of exams. These kids from an out-of-state university who came to see their team play basketball last night.

They are giving. And not just coins. They are giving paper money.

These are the college kids we are all worried about. We have this idea parked in the back of our heads that they are such selfish, “me-centered” people. But look at them. They can’t walk by without stopping, saying “Merry Christmas” and putting something in the pot.

Then someone else passes by, comes back, puts several dollars in the pot and tells Donald, “The Salvation Army helped me once when I was down. ” Donald nods and smiles a smile that says, “Now, aren’t you
glad you came?” I nod a “Yes” back to him. I ring the bell a little harder.

Here I am begging for money from people who are much less able to give than I am. And they are being much more generous than I would be.

“How can I explain it?” I ask myself.

Is it just that it is Christmas time? No. Christmas these days has gotten away from us. It is a pressure time. There is too much rushing around for everyone. The old Christmas is gone. No longer a season of giving and reflection and quiet celebration, it is a season gone mad.

Wait a minute. There is no other way to explain these people giving so happily and so generously. It is Christmas. Our Christmas season may be covered up with frantic, maddening, unhealthy frenzy. But that key piece of Christmas, that best piece of Christmas, is still there.

So covered up we can miss it, but still at the core. Still ready to transform us like the first Christmas–unleashing that good spirit in us. A spirit that leads us again to understand that joy and meaning in our lives comes from what we allow ourselves to do for
others.

Even if it is just ringing the bells.


D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.