Loose dollar bills and pocket change fuel the Salvation Army's fundraising drives, but every once in a while an unexpected donation arrives in one of those familiar red kettles.
In south-central Pennsylvania, the Salvation Army received five golden rings dropped into the kettles from Nov. 30 through Monday, bringing to mind the popular Christmas carol.
"I'm waiting for the four calling birds," Maj. Darren Mudge, the York-area coordinator for the Salvation Army, said Thursday.
Two donors called to confirm the gifts, one had dropped two rings into a kettle and the other three. The Army expects to sell the rings to a jeweler to help fund its charitable programs.
In the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, an anonymous donor continued his own tradition on Dec. 2, dropping a gold Liberty coin into a kettle, labeled with a piece of yellow tape reading "Annie."
"There's a gentleman who leaves gold coins in memory of his late wife, Annie," said Matt Gerke, a spokesman for the Salvation Army in St. Louis. "He called in one year to make sure we knew."
And in Broward County, Fla., someone dropped a small gold-and-diamond engagement ring into a kettle last year. The Salvation Army there, like the one in Pennsylvania, publicized the ring but not its details, just to make sure it hadn't accidentally fallen into the kettle.
When no one came forward, jeweler Reuben Ezekiel of Fountains Jewelers in Plantation, Fla., bought it from the Salvation Army, and gave it away again in a free raffle. It allowed a couple to get engaged when they won the ring from the jeweler around Valentine's Day.
"Hopefully, they lived happily ever after," said Sally Gress, the Army's director of development in Broward County.
The Salvation Army's kettle campaign began in 1891, when Capt. Joseph McGee in San Francisco wanted to provide a free Christmas dinner for the poor. The former sailor recalled that in Liverpool, England, he used to see a pot on a landing, where people tossed in donations.
McGee received permission from the city to place a pot at the Oakland ferry landing, drawing donations from those traveling to and from the boats.
The tradition has spread around the world. The Salvation Army said contributions to the red kettles, so visible before the holidays, help the ministry as it assists the elderly, the poor, the ill and prison inmates.
In many parts of the country, a few donors drop gold or silver coins into the kettles, allowing the Salvation Army to exchange them for their value — sometimes hundreds of dollars.
Salvation Army officials believe the tradition of giving ounce or half-ounce gold coins began in McHenry County, Ill., in 1982.
"It's a holiday tradition, but we don't know who started it," said Michael Braver, with the Army in the greater Chicago area.
The region has received more than 300 valuable coins, including two last year that were wrapped in $100 bills.
And while the Army appreciates every monetary donation, those who contribute more help to brighten the Christmas season.
"They don't want a receipt," Mudge said. "They don't want a tax break. They are just being incredibly generous."