Kaaren Solveig Anderson
The day always held magic, mostly because of my dimeladen mittens. In the
morning, my dad would give my sister and me each a handful of dimes, which I
kept in my mittens so I could tinker with them as we walked in anticipation of
finding another one of “them”—Salvation Army Christmas buckets. At almost every
corner familiar red cans awaited. I marveled in watching my dimes swirl their
way to the quarter-sized slot and plunk in to rest amid other dime-sized
donations. At the time, I knew nothing about Salvation Army theology, only that
they worked for the homeless and destitute. They became my symbol of generosity
for the season, albeit bucket-sized.
As an adult, I often felt an odd pull to ring the bell myself. One year I
gave in. I called up the lieutenant at the local Salvation Army and asked
enthusiastically if they were in need of help. They were. I was given two
assignments. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that little tinkly bell.
The first assignment was a busy street corner with a bookstore and coffee
shop on either side. I rang my dinga- lingy bell in ten-degree weather with
glee, stamping my feet periodically to stay warm. My smart bucket swung slightly
in the breeze. It was an experience just as I had hoped: people asked me if I
was warm enough, a couple bought me coffee, many smiled and simply wished me
“Happy Holidays” as they passed. I marveled at the parade of dime donors and the
familiar “plunk” of change that followed.
The second assignment was at a mall across from JC Penney’s. Once again
eager, I itched to start my ring-adinging. The lieutenant arrived to set up my
bucket. My hands reached for the bell. No bell. He explained, “The mall owners
have complained, no bells, only this.” He handed me a sign.
The sign was attached to a long dowel. On the top of the dowel, two pieces of
paper were stapled together over the center of the stick. One side read “DING,”
the other “DONG.” Instead of ringing, I now had to flip a sign that read
“DING-DONG.” My little bucket instantly lost its ting-a-ling. My enthusiasm
waned. I flipped in silent motion. It seemed absurd, but I went to work. People
pushed past each other, mired in that Christmas hubbub that leans toward
frustration, not joy. Then they’d spot me. Their faces would contort, scrunching
up into laughter and that uncomfortable feeling when you’re embarrassed and
humored by someone at the same time. They would often throw in some dimes and
say “Happy Holidays,” barely able to stifle an awkward yet justifiable smirk. I
fought hard not to feel like the sign was projecting my mental state to the mall
For four hours I flipped—the sign, that is. Ten minutes before I was to quit,
this fellow in black cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat walked up to me and
laughed. He was full out chuckles, bent over, hysterically laughing. I stood
taller, flipping my sign with increased vigor. I couldn’t tell where he was
going with this. When he finally stood up for air, his eyes were smiling, so I
hoped for no malicious intent. But I also was ready to kick him in the shins for
his reaction to me and my now stupid sign.
Then he said, “I must say, I’ve never seen a sign like that before. Anybody
that stands with a sign that says ‘Ding-Dong’ must be duly rewarded.” He reached
into his back pocket and retrieved his wallet. Crisp bills lay neatly in uniform
order. He ran through the fives, tens, and twenties, and got to a row of
fifties. He pulled one out. A fifty. He neatly folded the bill and squeezed it
into the bucket designed for coin donors. Nodding, he smiled right into my eyes
and muttered, “Well, I never.” Then he continued on through the mall with
laughter that hung captive in the air like lingering pipe smoke.
I, on the other hand, began to turn that sign with a renewed vigor. I looked
at each passerby with a new attitude, whether they snickered or smiled, donated
or not. I now felt strangely in awe of my DING-DONG sign. I was unabashedly
proud that I was stupid enough to stand in a mall tenaciously flipping a sign,
waiting for humor and generosity to awaken someone’s humdrum spirit. Waiting for
it to finally dawn on me that my gifts of generosity and time needed to lose
their pretenses in order for any true generosity to occur. Waiting, just to
discover, that this season can still thrill and surprise. Waiting for magic,
only to find that red buckets held it all the time. Even without the
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
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Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.
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