If there is one image of The Salvation Army that comes immediately to the public’s mind, it is that of a bell-ringing volunteer tending a Christmas kettle on a city street.

The kettles were started by Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee in December 1891. The Captain had resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner to San Francisco’s poor. But how would he pay for the food? Remembering his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England, McFee recalled seeing a large pot, called “Simpson’s Pot,” into which charitable donations were thrown by passers-by. He secured permission from authorities to place a similar pot at the Oakland ferry landing, at the foot of Market Street. Its success encouraged other local corps to do the same, and by 1895 the kettle was used in thirty Salvation Army corps on the West Coast.

Two years later, Officer William A. McIntyre took the novel idea to Boston, but his fellow officers refused to cooperate for fear of “making spectacles of themselves.” So McIntyre, his wife, and his sister set up three kettles in the heart of the city. That year the kettle effort in Boston and other locations nationwide resulted in 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy.

Kettles have changed since the utilitarian cauldron set up in San Francisco. Some new kettles have a self-ringing bell or a booth complete with public-address system to broadcast the traditional Christmas carols. Salvation Army officers and soldiers still tend the pots, but so do community volunteers, and paid employees.

But the purpose of the kettles remains the same. When The Salvation Army “puts out the kettles” today— from the United States to Japan to Chile—millions of dollars are raised. While the days are past when a sitdown dinner in Madison Square Garden brought in thousands from the street, the homeless poor are still invited to share holiday dinners and festivities at hundreds of local Salvation Army centers. Other people are given grocery checks so they can buy their own dinners. The kettles provide about one-third of the money used to aid over 4,500,000 persons annually at Christmas.

The Christmas kettle stands as a symbol of service, a refreshing reminder amid the hoopla of Christmas that people do care for one another.