Courtney Marshall doesn't think of herself as a Christmas elf.
She doesn't wear green tights. She doesn't make presents. She doesn't hang out with a fat guy in a red suit.
Instead, Marshall openly declares her faith in God, believing she is doing His work every time she staffs a Salvation Army kettle, smiles at strangers and thanks them for their donations.
In our secular world, it's increasingly rare to meet a young person who believes in organized religion. It's rarer still to find one who will stand in a mall or grocery store for hours on end to display her faith.
Christmas is not about shopping for Marshall. This is a season that celebrates the birth of a baby boy.
She does not proselytize. She bears witness.
Courtney Marshall is Winnipeg's Salvation Army kettle campaign co-ordinator.
To mind the kettle, you have to be a member in good standing of the church. You must be willing to publicly proclaim your belief.
You should be able to smile at strangers and ignore unpleasant comments, averted eyes and passersby claiming they gave at the last kettle.
"Sometimes people might have had a bad experience with the Salvation Army or they just don't want anything to do with us," Marshall says.
Finally, you've got to be trustworthy because those loonies, toonies and large bills add up quickly.
If you met the criteria, you might be allowed to stand beside the plastic kettle, ringing a bell where it's allowed, and using the sheer force of your personality and faith to draw donations.
For the most part, you're a volunteer.
Marshall, 20, is more than a kettle-minder. She runs Winnipeg's kettle campaign from Nov. 19 to Dec. 24.
There are 1,500 workers across the city, most of them volunteering for short shifts.
There are 40 kettles in the city. Each pulls in an average of $300 a day. The Salvation Army's goal for this year's Kettle Campaign was $500,000.
Time was, you'd see Salvation Army volunteers every three blocks downtown, all of them ringing bells to attract attention. In many places, says Marshall, mall management or store owners have banned the bells.
"I guess they were disturbing the customers," she says.
It's a sound many of us associate with Christmas, a pealing reminder we have an obligation to help others.
Positioning the kettles in places where we go to overspend on things we don't really need is a stroke of genius.
Having Courtney Marshall stand next to a plastic kettle is a great reminder of good fortune and blessings.
She's taking a course in addictions counselling at Red River College. Her parents are both captains with the Salvation Army. The job is a natural fit.
"I really feel that God is using me as an example," she says. "I want people who use our services to know that I'm there for them."
While many of the kettle-minders are volunteers, Marshall also hires people from Salvation Army programs. It gives them dignity, she says, and some money.
It also saves her from trying to find people willing to work an eight-hour shift for no pay.
She says there are a few tricks of the trade.
"The main thing we tell people is the eye contact is important. People know you're there and they pass you by. If you can catch their eye, they'll stop.
"Some of those people just don't make eye contact. Maybe they can't contribute or maybe they're just ignoring her. Really, you've just got to be in tune with people."
Marshall has received everything from pennies to hundred-dollar bills.
"Mostly it's coins and fives. We get cheques, too."
If she could tell donors one thing, it's that they've blessed a stranger.
"I hope they see what a difference they can make in someone's life," she says. "They may think they're just one person. Even one person can change a life."
The Marshall family will gather tonight, open one present each and listen to a reading of The Christmas Story.
They'll give praise to the man whose miraculous birth inspires them every day.