By Michaela Kron

They stand outside stores throughout the holiday season, sometimes wearing Santa hats, wishing a merry Christmas to all, and continually ringing the bells that mix with Christmas carols and snow music to provide the soundtrack to December shopping.

They’re the Salvation Army bell ringers, serving on the front lines of the organization’s familiar Red Kettle campaign, which runs from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve to finance the group’s efforts to provide a happy holiday to, and ease the year-round burdens of, people in need.

This year, amid a recession that has escalated home foreclosures and unemployment, the kettles aren’t ringing with as many coins as in Christmases past.

“It’s a very difficult year for us,” said Maj. Jim Seiler, the Atlanta-area commander for the Salvation Army. “We’re very concerned.”

The local kettle campaign raised $1.5 million last year, and the Salvation Army budgeted for an increase to $1.6 million this December. But Seiler said that with about a week to go, donations had declined by about $27,000. That’s despite a jump in collections in Cobb County, where Seiler said a new campaign leader was “going like gangbusters.”

“If the income doesn’t come to budgeted levels, we have to decrease our expenses,” Seiler said. “It’s our hope that we don’t have to do that, but we’re prepared to do it if necessary.”

Bell ringer Greg Burley has witnessed the decline in the kettle donations from his station outside the CityWalk Kroger and other sites. He said he has noticed an average of about $150 to $200 collected per kettle, compared with last year’s average of $200 to $300.

“The economy has definitely put a damper on the money coming in,” Burley said.

Seiler said the campaign’s success largely depends on the retail season itself. “The Christmas kettles are really a function of foot traffic in the mall,” Seiler said. “We’re affected by the decline in shopping,” as well as the short shopping season because Thanksgiving was relatively late.

While some shoppers were on cellphones or otherwise occupied as they rushed past the bell ringer into Kroger recently, most people acknowledged the familiar site and sounds, and about a quarter of them stopped and put something in the kettle.

Bob Thornton, another bell ringer whose service this year includes the CityWalk Kroger, said: “People are giving, but they can’t give what they normally give. The money is down.”

Another challenge during a recession is getting the volunteers to staff the kettles. Some companies that support the kettle campaign by ringing bells have cut back staff and no longer can afford to take time off.

Seiler said one company that was one of the organization’s best volunteer groups canceled its volunteer day, and one or two other big groups canceled because of cuts.

Thornton said he became a bell ringer to give back to the Salvation Army. “The Salvation Army is a good organization,” he said. “It helped me over the years.”

Linda Moffett, a Sandy Springs resident who contributed to the kettle outside Kroger, said the Salvation Army “certainly meets a need and serves a cause, and that’s why I donate to it.”