Many years ago when I was covering a small community for a weekly newspaper it was my responsibility to fill an entire section with community news.

With a town that had a population around 5,000, it wasn't always easy to find enough stories. Maybe that was one reason I noticed every small thing.

One January, I noticed one particular home still had a lighted Christmas tree in the window. It was still there in February, too. When St. Patrick's Day came and went and the tree was still there, I worked up my nerve and rang the doorbell, asking if there was any significance to the tree.

The woman who answered the door was friendly and welcomed me with a cup of hot chocolate. She told me she promised her son who was in the service the tree would remain lighted until he could come home for Christmas.

"It doesn't matter when he comes home," she said. "It won't be Christmas until he gets here."

Her son finally made it home in early April. He was touched when he saw the Christmas tree still shining, waiting for his homecoming.

I had somewhat of the same experience many years later when my husband and I were supposed to spend New Year's Eve in Hazleton with our best friends, Frank and Priscilla. Instead, Andy got sick and was rushed to intensive care where he remained for more than a week.

When Frank and Priscilla came to visit Andy in the hospital, they told him they weren't taking down the tree until he got there.

With one health crisis after the other, he never got to Hazleton until one hot day in July. Imagine our surprise when we opened the door to see the entire house decorated for Christmas, complete with a big tree.

"We told you we were going to wait for you until we celebrated Christmas," they told Andy.

We learned that year that Christmas starts in the heart and remains there as long as love prevails.

I've always thought that Christmas should have more to do with feelings of the heart than with observing a day on the calendar.

And each year I find myself wishing that all the goodwill of the Christmas season could last all year.

Christmas often brings out the best in people. It certainly seems to make us more generous. Ask any charity what month brings in the most money and they will say December. It's the one time of year people open their hearts to those in need.

My friend Pat runs an outreach ministry for those who are needy or homeless. She says the good news is this year people recognize how much families are hurting and donations are at an all-time high.

The bad news is that the number of people desperate for food is also at an all-time high. Every foreclosure, every job loss translates into another family struggling to get by.

"The sad thing is we have people all year who don't have money for food. Hunger doesn't go away when Christmas is over. But much of the generosity we see during the Christmas season does go away," said Pat.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could think of those less fortunate year round rather than just during the Christmas season?

Food pantries for needy families are now filled. It's the time of year when people donate groceries and checks.

In almost every community, churches and organizations are putting on Christmas dinners for needy families. There are enough donated turkeys and enough volunteers to serve the dinner.

In coming months the hunger will remain. But the volunteers will disappear and so will much of the donations.

Our small community puts on a monthly dinner for those who find it hard to have a hot meal. Each month an individual, family or church comes forward to buy, cook and serve the dinner.

"I have 24 families who volunteered to do December," said the outreach coordinator. "In the summer, we won't be able to find enough volunteers."

She speaks from experience. Last August they couldn't put on the monthly dinner because they didn't have the food or financial resources.

Again, wouldn't it be nice if the generosity we see at Christmas could last all year?

I love what I'm seeing during the Christmas season in almost every town. I've come upon so many sweet and inspiring stories I can't write about them all.

One story that touched me was the 10-year-old girl who heard her mother talking to her dad at the dinner table about giving to the homeless coalition. The mother mentioned some families were sleeping in cars because they lost their homes to foreclosure and had no place to go.

The little girl left the table and went to her bedroom where she pulled the blanket off her bed and went into her sock drawer for the $50 she received from her grandmother for her birthday. She insisted her mother take both the blanket and money for the homeless.

But she didn't stop there. The fifth grader went to school the next day and mobilized her classmates to have a food drive for needy families.

Few people can say no to a child. The kids canvassed their neighborhoods and brought in an impressive pile of food and stuff.

Scenes like that are taking place in every community.

How I wish that aspect of Christmas would last all year.