Published: 15/12/2005 Volume 115 No. 5986 Page 31

Get into the festive spirit by helping those who need it most. Alexis Nolan looks at the options

If the prospect of over-indulgence in food and drink, repeated TV 'classics' and relatives you wish were someone else's does not appeal, then volunteering could be the solution.

Christmas and New Year is a busy one for charities, and they often rely on the sterling work of their volunteers to make what can be a difficult time of year for many a more comfortable period.

But it is worth bearing in mind that, for some of the more interesting jobs, you have to get involved long before Christmas. If you want to help out as a listener for the Samaritans, for example, then you have already left it far too late for this holiday period.

'For this year It is too late to get trained and selected as listener on the phones or e-mail, ' says a spokesman. 'And even though we do get more calls, especially after Christmas and the New Year, we do not need any more listeners; We are fully staffed.

'But we could always do with more practical help for behind-the-scenes work.

In any case, not everyone is cut out to be a listener.' To be a listener usually requires six to eight weeks' training, taking part in group sessions and learning about active listening and different types of calls through in-practice exercises and group discussions. But the effort is worthwhile.

Medical secretary Elaine, who has been a Samaritans volunteer in Leicester for the last five years, says: 'Listening to someone who is depressed, worried, frightened or suicidal, and who does not know where to turn, is perhaps the most valuable thing we can do for a fellow human being.' Other charities, such as the Salvation Army, St Mungo's and Sane, are similarly well set up for the services they provide throughout the year. For others, such as Crisis, the charity for single homeless people, the festive period requires a major ramp-up in their efforts. Crisis Open Christmas shelters provide protection from the elements and companionship for over 1,500 people over the period. The charity relies on volunteers to help the homeless over Christmas.

If you're unsure which charity to help or where your skills could best be used for volunteer work, national umbrella charity TimeBank can offer some help. Its top 10 tips for volunteering over Christmas and New Year are:

Decide which days and the number of hours you want to volunteer for.

Get in touch with your local Volunteer Bureau and sign up for opportunities over the Christmas and holiday period. There are over 500 centres across the UK and each one offers local volunteer opportunities.

Contact TimeBank for advice and information about volunteering at Christmas. Call 0845-456 1668, e-mail feedback@timebank. org. uk or visit www.timebank. org. uk

Crisis runs several projects over the Christmas period. To get involved contact volunteering@crisis. org. uk or call 0207426 3875.

Age Concern is one of the UK's largest organisations working with and for older people. There are hundreds of local volunteering opportunities. To get involved visit www. ageconcern. org. uk or call the Information line on 080000 99 66, and ask for a list of Christmas volunteering opportunities.

Do informal volunteering and extend your support to local neighbours or host a Christmas meal.

Contact your local care home, hospital, youth club, place of worship or community centre and volunteer your time and skills.

If you cannot find any volunteering opportunities, why not contact your local council or authority and set up your own Christmas volunteering project - for example, decorating your local public space. For more ideas contact our Changing Streets team on 0845-456 1668.

l Contact local and national charities and organisations you support and ask for a list of their Christmas volunteering opportunities.

l Visit the www. do-it. org. uk website and search for volunteering opportunities.

The website is constantly updated with new vacancies and will have a comprehensive list of Christmas opportunities.