Christmas feels different this year. I'm not exactly sure why, maybe fewer lights, less spending. But it's more than that.
There's an unease in the air, but also a sense of hope. I can't wait for Barack Obama to be sworn in as president. I'm ready, as are many others, to see the end of the George W. Bush era.
But that's only a part of it.
Our family underwent significant changes this year. Our daughter bought a house; our son finished at Purdue and went straight to work on the Obama campaign. Now both are gainfully employed, in a year when millions of Americans have lost their jobs.
Another miracle occurred during this economic crisis: We sold our old house and bought a new one.
But despite these wonderful events, I feel different this Christmas, because of what's happening around me.
During this time of year, various religious holidays are observed, complete with their own customs. Christmas is celebrated widely, by devout Christian believers as well as secularists.
I concede everyone's right to celebrate this time of year as he or she sees fit. But there is a common element in all of the beliefs, and that is what makes this holiday season so special.
On city sidewalks and outside shopping malls, Salvation Army bell-ringers ask us to give as little or as much as we can. This will help people who will wake up on Christmas morning in homeless shelters and eat at a local church.
Even the Marines get into the seasonal mood by holding toy giveaways, standing smartly in their uniforms. And local nonprofits and schools pack up toy baskets for less fortunate students.
But what bothers me is that after Christmas comes and goes, and New Year's Eve headaches dissipate while watching college bowl games on New Year's Day, these gestures of charity come to an end, but the need for them does not.
This leaves food pantries begging for food when school ends in June, and kids lose out on meals at schools. It's not snowy, and no Christmas carols are being sung. But people are still in dire need of food, shelter, clothing and hope.
Food pantries are used, for the most part, by working families. They may be working two or more low-wage jobs per household, but it's not enough to get by.
And now that millions of people have been laid off this year alone, the pressure on systems that depend on the public's generosity will be stretched to the breaking point. Local governments are cutting budgets, putting the squeeze on nonprofits that provide beds and meals for the homeless.
Brother, can you spare a dime? In early January? In late March? In mid-summer?
Take that Christmas spirit and move on with it throughout the year. Pass it forward every day, not just during the Christmas season.
I give thanks daily for having a simple but nice home, food in the cupboards and refrigerator, a nice bed to sleep in, a family who loves me.
This is going to be a hard Christmas for many more people than last year. And the upcoming year will remain hard for millions of our fellow citizens, and people throughout the world.
For now, if you pass a bell-ringer, slide in some paper money. And when that nonprofit fundraising letter arrives in the mail, respond as best as you can.
Go to the food pantries with bags and boxes of food. Volunteer to distribute food to people in need.
Look around your home for carefully cared-for clothing, especially baby clothing, toys, games and those other things stashed away in boxes in your attic or basement. Then share those wonderful gifts with other people who have very little.
Finally, when the holiday season ends, don't let your willingness to help fade away. Give what you can. If you have much, much is expected of you.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Winter Solstice and happy holidays. I think I covered it all.
Steve Braunginn is a writer, radio host, businessman and community activist.