Monday, December 20, 2010
The Salvation Army is, to most Chicagoans and other urban dwellers, an integral feature in the Christmas landscape. And over its 145 years of existence, the quaint, British offshoot of the Methodist Church has become a fixture in the pop cultural firmament.
The 1940s Christmas classic Silver Bells, first sung by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell was inspired by imagery of Salvation Army bellringers. The Beatles' surreal Strawberry Fields drew its name from John Lennon's reminiscences of a Liverpool Salvation Army orphans' home of that name. Simon and Garfunkle told us to "hear the Salvation Army band," in Hazy Shade of Winter and Jethro Tull mocked the Army's charitable efforts in Aqualung, sneering: "Salvation ala mode and a cup of tea."
But behind the anachronistic quasi-military garb and the oom-pah bands and the omnipresent seasonal bellringing is the often overlooked fact that the Salvation Army is a religious denomination. A Christian denomination.
In its organizational credo, it makes no secret of the fact that: "We believe that in the person of Jesus Christ the divine and human natures are united, so that he is truly and properly God and truly and properly man."
I holds regular services in regular churches and has a hierarchy of church leadership.
And like most mainstream Protestant churches (if people whose ecclesiastic garb consists of marching band uniforms can be called mainstream) it has been declining in membership.
The decline has been such, that it can no longer rely on its own Army regulars to ring the bells at Christmastime. So now it pays mercenaries around $8 per hour to shiver outside the Jewel-Oscos and Dominicks and ring those bells.
So I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised the other day, when the Spanish accented fellow bellringing for the Salvation Army outside the Jewel at Howard and McCormick in Evanston should have greeted me with the politically correct euphemism: "Happy Holidays."
I guess he was afraid of antagonizing Islamicists, Jews and Hindus, as well as Kwanzaa and Festivus enthusiasts with the forbidden mention of the Christian Holiday -- Christmas. At eight bucks an hour, you can't let a little thing like Christmas get in the way of your daily kettle take.
In his wonderful, but often overlooked libella, "Down and Out in Paris and London," George Orwell chronicled his two years as a homeless bum during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the closing passage of the work, he resentfully vowed, that now that he was financially back on his feet he would never again expect a panhandler to show gratitude if he gave him a penny. Nor would he ever put a farthing in a Salvation Army kettle.
He was resentful over the fact that the Salvation Army homeless shelters in England would subject him and his fellow hungry down-and-outers to interminably windy religious sermons and church services before reluctantly doling out meager rations of bread and margarine.
"Salvation ala mode and a cup of tea."
He found the Salvation Army's soldiers to be insultingly zealous in their religious proselitizing.
Orwell wouldn't have to worry about that today.
The Salvation Army has mostly hireling bellringers today. And far from haranguing you with Christian platitudes, they sheepishly mutter the sanitized secular salutation:
If they are, in fact, an army, they could best be likened to the French army.
During the 20th century the French army was renowned for one thing and one thing only.