Ring Them Bells--Not! Salvation Army Noise Complaint

PHOTO: A donation is made as Salvation Army bell ringer Ruben Rios works outside a store on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.
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A New Hampshire woman has called the cops on the Salvation Army. Her complaint? Loud bell-ringing.

Sarah Hamilton-Parker, who works in the Portsmouth jewelry store Lovell Designs, says the Salvation Army has been encamped outside her store every year for the past four. By her calculation, she has been exposed to 1,400 hours of bell-ringing.

"My customers complain about it," she tells ABC News. "They ask me how I possibly can stand it." In fact, she cannot. She has to wear ear plugs in the store to keep her sanity, but even those can't keep out the noise of the four people outside, standing alongside one of the Army's signature red pots, lustily clanging away. The store's huge plate glass windows, she says, only make the noise worse. "They bring it in," she says.

She's been told that the ringers will hold this position for a month. "Is it unreasonable to ask them to move around a little—to go somewhere else so I can get a break?" she asks. In the past, she has tried to beg relief from local Salvation Army leaders; but her calls, she says, have gone unreturned.

This year she cracked, and called police.

Despite her complaint, the bells continue. Police captain Mike Schwartz told Seacoast Online that he appreciates the woman's concern but that the Army has been granted an exemption from the city's anti-noise ordinance.

Hamilton-Parker says the ordinance expressly prohibits noises that are annoying, prolonged, disturbing of the peace, or excessive. "Excessive?!" she asks. "I'm not sure what could be more excessive than 360 hours a year."

Jennifer Byrd, the Salvation Army's national public relations director, says about 25,000 ringers and pot-watchers blanket the U.S. every holiday season, taking up their positions the day after Thanksgiving and laying down their bells on Christmas Eve. They took in $147.6 million last year, she says, up a few percent from the year before.

"We don't actually hear a lot of noise complaints," Byrd says. Most people, she thinks, look forward to the arrival of the ringers every year, since they associate them with Christmas and with giving. But, says Byrd, "we definitely value our relations with our local merchants—the folks that let us stand our kettles in front of their stores. And because we do, we try to work out complaints on a case-by-case basis."

Some malls around the country, reported the San Diego Union-Tribune, have in past years denied the Army permission to set up indoor pot-and-bell operations, in the belief that if they give the Army's ringers permission to solicit, they legally will have to grant the same permission to other groups. Other malls have denied permission because their merchants have made noise complaints about the ringing bells.

Salvation Army outfits around the country, according to the Union-Tribune, have experimented with noise-abatement measures, including replacing the clappers in their bells with paper clips, coating the clappers with rubber, or removing them altogether, producing a so-called 'silent' bell.

"We have also taken our ringing online," says Byrd: The Army has created a virtual pot at onlineredkettle.org, to which people can contribute, whether or not they ever encounter real ringers.

In Freemont, Neb., where, according to the Union-Tribune, half of local malls for a time banned the Salvation Army, volunteers resorted to using wooden bells with "ding" written on one side, and "dong" on the other. Army officials said the wooden bells were discontinued after volunteers complained they felt foolish.

Back in New Hampshire, Hamilton-Parker says that if she fails to get satisfaction from local Salvation Army representatives, her next step will be to write to the city council. Seacoast Online is reporting that a local Salvation Army captain has offered to equip the ringers outside Hamilton-Parker's store with a quieter bell and to reduce their number from four to one.

She's no Grinch, Hamilton-Parker insists, nor does she hate Christmas (as Seacoast Online had quoted her as saying). She tells ABC News she understands the affection many people feel at Christmas time for the red pot and the ringing. "What a world of merriment their melody foretells," she says, quoting a line from the first stanza of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells."

She just wishes they'd foretell their merriment someplace else.

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