Thursday, May 16, 2013

Keep the pot boiling

You might think my head is full of summer plans, but Christmas has snuck in. It's not because I'll be spending winter break with my Australian family, though I will be. (Christmas is in summer down there, remember!) Rather, the Kellen gallery at Parsons is putting together an exhibition called "Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story" for the summer months, and solicited ideas from faculty, who were to think about objects that might resonate with our areas of specialty. After considering cleaners' window Buddhas and eruv wires, I wound up proposing a Salvation Army red kettle with bell, an idea the curator welcomed. It will be strange if not salutory to encounter it indoors, in mid-summer, as an object in a museum - and silent! But as the curator goes about trying to locate one (and fifty other objects), I had to write a longish caption for it. Here's what I wound up with:


Silver bells,
Silver bells,
It’s Christmas time in the City…

The carol “Silver Bells,” composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and famously crooned by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards, was one of the first songs to bring Christmas culture into line with the urbanization of American life. Livingston and Evans’s song has long been associated with the sound of Salvation Army bellringers, soliciting donations in their signature red kettles for the down and out. The song assimilates the ring-a-ling of Salvation Army bells with the lights and sounds of prosperous shoppers, stepping into the busy streets only to load up on treasures for cozy family scenes back home, but the Salvation Army’s red kettles invite us to a deeper reckoning with American religion’s ambivalent relationship with the city, with public space, and with the recipients of its charity.

Although it has come to be associated with the City, the red kettle wasn’t a New York invention. The Salvation Army grew out of English Methodism in the second half of the 19th century. A sailors’ tradition from Liverpool inspired the first kettle soliciting donations for a Christmas meal for the indigent: suspended from a tripod, a kettle appeared on the Oakland Ferry landing in San Francisco in 1891 with the caption “Keep the pot boiling!” Within a few years, red kettle campaigns had spread throughout American cities. In New York, 1901 saw the first of many red kettle-funded sit-down Christmas dinners for the poor held in Madison Square Garden. A half century later, the musical and film “Guys and Dolls” led Americans to associate New York especially with the social problems organizations like the Salvation Army were called to address.

It’s no accident that the Salvation Army should be the most publicly visible and audible of religious organizations around Christmas, even disguised in the innocuous-seeming figure of Santa Claus. The “Army” had from the start steered clear of the trappings, titles and temples of traditional religion. Its mission was reclaiming the streets from sin, most conspicuously in the street corner meetings it called “chapels” or even “cathedrals of the open air.” It represented a challenge to what scholars call the privatization of religion and the concomitant secularization of public space.

Few who donate to the red kettle campaigns know of this history. Many don’t even know that the Salvation Army is a Christian denomination, indeed a politically very conservative one. What they see and hear is an opportunity to help the less fortunate: a street donation for those who, sadly, live on the streets. Do the kettle and its tripod recall the homeless of the past, huddled together against the cold? Many of the paid bell-ringers, in their jolly Santa suits, are themselves homeless.

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