I'm Jewish. In fact, following my first-ever full-blown Christmas with my partner's family, an aunt re-introduced me to a cousin saying, "You remember Sally. She was the token Jew at Christmas."
It was true. I'm outsider to the religious parts of the holiday. But I'm no stranger to the values and culture of Christmas. Far more than just a religious occasion, Christmas in the American tradition is a celebration of family, community and generosity - a tradition of community values.
Every year now, we schlep out to rural Illinois with a haul of presents. This year, my partner and I tried to balance our environmental "life is about more than consumption" view of the world with the recognition that it's fun to give people things and we don't exactly have the time or lifestyle that allows for hand-knit scarves and such. But at the end of the day, after all the shopping and spending and wrapping and stuffing into the stockings, the stuff is just stuff. What we celebrate are not the presents but the people - that they took the time to do something so thoughtful and giving.
Selflessness is an American value. We go out of our way to get our grandmother a really nice, really overpriced hat even though we know she's only going to get us another weird pair of socks. Just like the rest of the year we volunteer and give money to charity, hold doors open for strangers, pay our taxes, leave good tips at restaurants, read the news in Burma or the Congo and feel empathy, look after the children playing ball near the street.
Every day, in ordinary and extraordinary ways, all of us do things to show our deep love and connection to the people around us - not only our families, but our neighbors, our countrymen, our fellow human beings. Everyday, we give of ourselves without expecting anything in return but simply out of common decency, knowing that we're all in it together. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, "We are all caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly." This sense of the greater good is the spirit of Christmas and the soul of America.
Unfortunately, our nation has lost its way in the last several decades. Forces from Hollywood to Washington have tried to convince us we're on our own, that it's a dog-eat-dog competitive world and you have to "look out for number one." While we once prioritized our shared duty to help the least among us, today we spend more time cutting taxes and attacking gay marriage than solving the sub-prime mortgage crisis or reducing pollution. While we once celebrated our diversity as a nation, we now spend more effort policing our borders and dismantling affirmative action than providing healthcare and economic opportunity for all. Many of us have come to believe that the only way to get ahead is to leave others behind - which has led to greedy excess for a small few but only struggle and disappointment for the rest of us.
So it's fitting that Christmastime comes at the end of the calendar year. It's the perfect time to re-think what we value as individuals and as a nation. Is it really just the accumulation of stuff, at any cost? Or do we deeply care about the people around us, our communities in the smaller and larger meanings of the word, the world we live in? If what we love about Christmas is really the spirit of togetherness, then what does it mean to live that togetherness year-round?
I can't wait for the cookies. I can't wait for the eggnog. I can't wait for my extremely long purple-and-red knit stocking which hangs next to the rest of the family's traditional white-and-red ones. But what I really can't wait for is the conversation, the smiles, the love, the appreciation, sharing the holiday together with people I care about and giving to them not because I have to but simply because it gives me joy.
Even though I'm Jewish, I love Christmas - for the same reason millions of US-born citizens support immigrant rights and millions of white people oppose racial profiling and millions of middle class families support safety net programs for the poor. We are a nation of people who care about more than just ourselves - not just at Christmas but year-round. We are a nation of community values, where we move forward further together.
This year, I know I'll get drunk on eggnog. And then I'll go home and pay my taxes and give money to social change organizations and vote and fight like hell for justice in politics and the world with the same spirit of community values that we're all blessed to receive at Christmas.
Sally Kohn is the Director of the Movement Vision Lab (www.movementvisionlab.org)