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Those tiny, tinny bells will never sound the same. After “Saturday Night” Live picked up Dec. 2 on the story that Helena’s Salvation Army couldn’t find enough hirelings to ring its collection bells, we thought we’d give the job a shake ourselves here in Missoula, where we’re told plenty of people sign up. No wonder.

We volunteered to spend a Tuesday shift at Southgate Mall’s front entrance, where we stood, clad in the requisite Santa hat and red apron, in the peculiar role of a figure long embedded in our collective consciousness. Bell in hand, red donation bucket hanging in front of us, we became that person whom we’ve all avoided, greeted and gawked at; the one for whom we’ve rummaged in our pockets or elaborately explained why we had no money to offer. Don that costume, stand by that bucket, and you’re instantly transformed. Two acquaintances walking by didn’t even recognize us, so apparently ingrained are people’s habits of interacting with the seasonally ubiquitous bell-ringer.

The steady streams of shoppers gave money—our estimate is nearly $70 in two hours—but they gave much more than that; by shift’s end, our smile was as weary as our bell-ringing muscles.

A few observations about the givers and non-givers are worth sharing. Women in high heels don’t donate and steadfastly avoid eye contact. Cell-phone talkers acquire an invisible force-field through which no smile, no gaze, no ding-a-ling can penetrate. Moms with young children frequently use bell-ringers’ presence as an opportunity to teach their offspring goodwill or to break them of their shyness. One little boy with a fistful of change almost made it to the bucket but scuttled back to the fold overwhelmed, leaving his mother to bashfully dump in the change herself. Another was marched back after apparently pocketing some of the coins his mother had provided.

A number of older women shopping alone took time to explain that they had already put money in the Wal-Mart bell-ringer’s bucket, or that they made monthly donations in lieu of bucket contributions, or that they had given on the way in, remember?

One man, who stood bell-side drinking his coffee and commenting on the state of bell-ringing affairs, offered his own observations.

“I figure if I can afford a couple bucks for a cup of coffee I could afford to help someone else,” he said. “It doesn’t look like many people are giving today. Maybe what you need is a bigger bell.”

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