Nothing says the holidays like the ubiquitous Salvation Army bell ringers. At major stores across the country, these volunteers have set up camp next to their little red kettles in the hopes of raising much-needed funds for the poor. Salvation Army volunteers ring their bells in the hopes of getting folks to drop in a handful of coins — or maybe even a handful of dollars — to help the poor during the holiday season. Usually, that's exactly what they get. Sometimes, they also get lint, small toys or trash in their buckets. And every now and again, they get something so special, the world stops to take notice.

In Mebane, North Carolina, for the past several years, an anonymous donor has dropped a valuable gold coin in the Salvation Army kettle. And it happened again this week. Salvation Army staff said the coin donated this year was an Australian $100 gold piece, valued at $1,200 U.S. 

Halfway across the country, in Omaha, Nebraska, a gold coin was found in the Salvation Army Kettle over the weekend. The .1867-ounce gold coin is worth roughly $225 to $275, according to Salvation Army officials. It is a French 20 Franc Gold Angel coin dated 1889. The coin was thought to be a symbol of luck for French, British and U.S. fighter pilots in World War I.

The tradition of the Salvation Army's red kettle is more than a century old. It all started in 1891 in San Francisco when Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee was looking for a way to raise money to provide a free Christmas dinner for the city's poor. McFee recalled his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England, when the custom was to place a large iron kettle where the boats came in to port. People tossed money into the kettle to help the poor. McFee placed a pot at the Oakland Ferry landing on Market Street with a sign that read, "Keep the pot boiling."

And just like that, a holiday tradition was born. McFee raised enough money to feed 1,000 people that first year. Within six years, the idea had spread nationwide, raising enough money to provide 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy.

Today the Salvation Army kettle can be seen in almost every city throughout the U.S., as well as in Europe, Korea, Japan and Chile. In the U.S., the money raised from the holiday kettle assists more than 4.5 million people during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. 

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Valuable gold coins dropped in Salvation Army kettles
Across the country, Salvation Army volunteers are finding much more than pennies and lint in their holiday buckets.