By Daniel Silliman
After 13 days, standing by the Salvation Army kettle, the seminary students don't even really hear the bells. Stationed at each door at Wal-Mart in Hampton, they ring them methodically -- ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.
Mechelle Henry has a cadet cap pulled down over her ears, her shoulders pulled up to keep her warm and a smile all over her face. Her right hand pumps up and down, shaking the bell and sending its noise out over the rainy, crowded, Christmas parking lot.
"Merry Christmas," she says. "Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas."
Henry, a Salvation Army Cadet in her first year at the school's seminary, in Atlanta, has said Merry Christmas to every person passing through the door of Wal-Mart for almost two weeks. Including, she says, a number of shoplifters.
"This one guy, I said 'Merry Christmas' to him," Henry says, "and then they pounced on him. I told the manger, 'I have personally greeted all of your shoplifters this week.'"
Outside the other door, at the Wal-Mart, last week, Salvation Army seminary student Lacy Parrish, varied wishes of "Merry Christmas" with greetings of "Good afternoon," both shouted over the bell ringing back and forth, back and forth, in her gloved hand.
Standing in the middle of the entry way, next to the Salvation Amry's bright red kettle suspended from a red tripod, Parrish said the Salvation Army's annual fund-raiser is an iconic part of Christmas and a tradition for a lot of holiday shoppers.
Earl Pembroke rolled a shopping cart up next to the hanging kettle and paused to let his two children put money in the pot. His daughter, 3-year-old Juanita, had a little fistful of pennies and dropped them in one at a time.
"Put them in," Earl said, and slowly uncurled her hand, dropping each penny, ploink, into the pot.
It's important, Pembroke says, to have children give away money. Around Christmas, their focus can be concentrated around getting gifts, and the kettle standing in front of the store can serve as a lesson, a reminder, to give back.
"We want to follow the example of Christ," he says, smiling at his little girl in her pink knit cap. "And you never know. I consider us fortunate. It could have been us needing help from the Salvation Army for Christmas."
Major Timothy Carter, a teacher at the Salvation Army seminary in Atlanta, says the fund-raiser supports the church's social service programs, gives a way for the church's cadets to practice living out their faith practically, and gives shoppers a practical way of expressing their own faiths during the holiday season.
"There's preaching, theology and bible study," Carter says, "but we also want to give them practical experiences. It's very intentional. Practical. To help them understand this is a very practical ministry we're involved in. It's not just those bible studies. Express your Christianity in practical terms."
The Salvation Army was founded in 1865, by a London minister who took the gospel out of the pulpits, and put it in the streets. The Army is organized along military lines, beginning in England with street preaching and brass bands, and known today for its charity and social work. The tradition of raising money, around Christmas, by ringing bells and putting out kettles, began in Oakland Calif., when Salvation Army Captain Joseph McPhee used the kettle to raise money for Christmas dinner for the city's poor and hungry.
Today, Carter says, the kettle still states the meaning of Christmas.
"If you know the Christmas story," he says, "you know it's about the greatest gift ever given when God gives his son to be a sacrifice for us. The message of Christmas is, 'Give to others.' Here, this gives people a chance to give back."
Walking out of the store, Claudia Springer shifts her hand into her purse, balancing the bags of freshly-purchased presents in one arm and pausing to stash spare money into the red kettle.
"Thank you. Merry Christmas," says Parrish, and she keeps ringing the bell -- ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.
Springer puts money into the pot every year, while shopping for Christmas presents for her family. It's a part of Christmas, she says, a part of "Peace on earth," and "Goodwill towards men."