No one loves Christmas more than my dad.
I mean it. No one. Ever.
The man loves his holiday. Not even Clark W. Griswald loves it more than he.
To be fair to Clark, my dad has never put up enough lights to be seen from the International Space Station, though he probably would have, if given the resources of Holywood and a huge movie set crew to help out.
I’ve written a bout my dad and Christmas before, when I talked about our Christmas tree back in the 70s. But today I want to talk about his love for his job, or the job he held for over 40 years. It wasn’t really a ‘job’ per se. It was more a vocation. He and my mom were Salvation Army Officers. They still are, mind you, but they’re retired now. Have been for several years, probably like ten or something.
But my dad will never retire from Christmas.
Sometimes, he might be knocked out of commission for a bit.
As I write this, he’s lying in the hospital, in Greenville, NC, 1500 miles away, with a broken hip, and a subdural hematoma. Thankfully, the head injury isn’t all that severe. They’re getting ready to operate on the hip, tomorrow, or at least it’s tomorrow while I’m writing this. It might be yesterday, or last week, by the time I post this to the interweb.
He had a fall, at home, on Monday.
According to my mom, he’d been doing quite well, all day. They’d been out shopping, or at least that’s the excuse he gave her, to check in and stand in at a Salvation Army Christmas Kettle at the Mart of Wal. Mom says that since she went along, and went in to shop, he only got to do it for about an hour, which I’m sure made his entire day. It wasn’t till he was home, later, that he had his fall.
But I’m not here to talk about my dad’s hospital visit. I’m here to tell you about what he loves to do every year in December.
My dad is the world’s greatest Christmas Kettle collector.
Yeah, there are flashier collectors, but working the kettles at Christmas, isn’t about flash; it’s about magic.
I saw a video the other day, on Facebook, of an officer in some city, probably New York or somewhere, dancing at his kettle. He was pretty good, I have to admit. Certainly a better dancer than my dad and myself. But I commented that he wasn’t really collecting a lot of money. I didn’t see a single person in the video—and there were lots of people going by—drop a penny in the kettle during his amazing dance routine.
The guy had forgotten the most important thing when it comes to sales, or raising money: the CTA.
It’s all about the Call to Action, man.
“Son, the most important thing to remember, when you’re out here, is to make eye contact, and speak to people,” my dad told me when I was about nine years old, the first time he ever dropped me off to work a Kettle.
It was in like 1977 or 78, I guess. December. I think it was the Roses store in Elizabeth City, NC. He was dropping me and my brother, Dave, off to work that evening. Yeah, we started young back then. Dave was two years younger than I, so like six or seven. My dad was banking on the ‘cuteness’ factor, I’m sure. And it worked pretty well.
“But dad,” I asked, “What should we say?” I had no clue what to say to strangers as they passed by me in a hurry to buy their kids the newest G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip, or pink, Barbie corvette.
“Just ask, ‘Would you like to help the Salvation Army?’” he said. “Repeat it to me.”
Both Dave and I looked up at him and said, “Would you like to help the Salvation Army?”
“Very good!” he said with pride, “And don’t forget to say ‘Thank You’ and ‘Merry Christmas’,” he continued.
I was unsure about the protocol on the response, so I asked, “But dad, what if they don’t put anything into the kettle?”
“No matter what they do, or don’t do, or say,” he said, “tell them ‘Thank You’ and “have a Merry Christmas’, anyway.”
This seemed a bit crazy to me, but I agreed that we would.
My brothers and I spent years working on the kettles, every year until we all went off to college, or grew up and moved away. I even came back to do it a few times after that when I was struggling as a young father and was down on my luck.
My brothers and I became master collectors over the years. We even out-collected our illustrious father, on occasion, something for which we bragged endlessly, and which was a point of pride for our dad. But no matter how much money we collected, even if it was more than he, we could never match his fame at the old red kettle.
My dad was Captain Christmas, to us, and to everyone, even long after he’d been promoted to Major. He’s still Captain Christmas to us, and to thousands who know him, or who have had the pleasure of walking past him into a store in December somewhere.
A Tuneful Call to Action
My dad doesn’t rely on the verbal CTA. You see, my dad is known for his singing, and his baritone horn.
It’s not that he never talks to people; he still manages to slip in the ‘Thank You’ and “Merry Christmas” in between the phrases of everyone’s favorite holiday tunes.
He’s been singing and playing that horn since before the Earth cooled, some four billion years ago. He’s been on numerous newspaper pages over the decades, and on TV spots, radio. You name it. But even without the press, he’d still be remembered by the millions of people that have seen and heard him at Christmas time.
I remember standing in front of K-Mart, or Roses, or Nichols, and a hundred other places, sometimes in the cold, sometimes in the heat—we lived in the South, mind ya—asking person after person, “Would you like to help the Salvation Army?” Most would, some wouldn’t. But at least once a day, someone would say, “I just gave over at suchandsuchaplace!” and add, “There’s a guy over there singing and playing a horn! You should do that!”
I’d laugh, and say, “Yeah, that’s my dad!” I didn’t tell them that many times I raised more money not singing and playing, both of which I could have done, if I’d had the stones to do it. They didn’t care whether I brought in more money than he did. And really, neither did my dad.
Captain Christmas knew something that the rest of us didn’t quite get.
He knows that the exchange between the Kettle worker and the person walking in to buy the newest fangled toys or boxes of chocolates, isn’t only about money.
The money matters, of course. The Salvation Army does lots of good stuff with it, every year. They help millions of families all over the world, with food, with heat and shelter, and counseling, and clothing, and yes, toys. They do this, by the way, all year long. Every day. But for my father, and those who really know, it isn’t just about that. It’s also about what you as the collector can give back to the givers.
He’s there to accomplish something much more than raising money to help people. He’s there to help people, RIGHT THEN! He knows that he has the gift and power to make people smile. And there is no greater power than that, my friend, especially in December.
I’ve struggled with this time of the year, since I grew up. Especially since I moved 1500 miles away from my blood family. There are days, sometimes several in a row, during the holidays, every year, where I think it’s all humbug. There’s not enough money to do the things I’d like to do for others, even for myself. I can’t afford to fly home to see everyone, etc, etc, ad nauseam.
It’s all a pity party, and I don’t wish to go there. You’ve probably had moments like that, too. I think there’s a reason why old Ebenezer Scrooge is such a popular character, and why Dickens chose to write about him. Everyone has a bit of Scrooge lurking within. Well, everyone except Captain Christmas, that is.
The Captain knows that other people feel that way, and that sometimes the only thing needed to flip that miserly mindset, is a song or a tune, a happy holidays, Christmas carol, boomed out across a parking lot.
I’ve seen people approaching my father’s kettle, faces pinched in a Burgermeister Meisterburger frown, heads down, hands in pocket clenching their wallets with white knuckles, fully intent on slipping by the red bucket without donating.
Sometimes they might have valid reasons to avoid it. Maybe they’re really next to broke, or they really did give at the last store, or sent a check into the office. Usually, they’re just feeling Grinchy that day, or that week, or maybe they’re just a Grinch all the time.
But more often than not, my dad accomplishes the goal of all three spirits, not in one night, but in about three seconds. The transformation is magical to watch, and has never ceased to amaze me.
The Grinch approaches, usually at a break-neck pace, avoiding eye contact. But then my dad breaks into “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” or “Silent Night” and they stop. Dead in their tracks, dumbfounded.
My dad is an excellent singer, a high tenor, something none of his sons were gifted with. We’re all decent singers, Tim is excellent, but none of us sing as high as he does, or with quite as much joy. Nobody beats Captain Christmas, man.
So when he breaks into song, the Grinches and Scrooges ain’t got a chance. They stop. And once their momentum is broken, they belong to the Captain. It’s a rare miser that can resist donating once they’ve been snared by the Captain’s voice. But my dad’s greatest joy, isn’t the money in the pot; it’s the transformation on their faces.
With one song, sometimes just a few notes of a song, he can turn ‘thiefy’ Grinch into ‘let me carve the roast beasty’ Grinch, or ‘If they’d rather die, they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population’ Scrooge, into ‘Let’s send the biggest turkey in the shop to Bob Cratchet’s house’ Scrooge. And there ain’t nothing more powerful than that, I’d wager.
So, this December, you probably won’t see Captain Christmas out there, unless you have already. He’s out of commission for a bit. But I have no doubt, whatsoever, that come next Holiday season, he’ll be singing and blowing that horn in front of some store in Greenville, NC, and transforming the moods and lives of countless people.
But even though he isn’t there, doesn’t mean you get to charge past the collector who is, no matter where you live.
Stop. Say “Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays, or Hanukkah, or Ramadan”, or whatever you want, as long as it’s kind. And drop a few pennies in that red bucket. Then say, “Thank you” to them, just for being there, and for putting a smile on your face, and remember that Captain Christmas would approve, and that he’s somewhere, singing Silent Night, warming up for next year…