How Volunteering at Christmas Works

By: John Barrymore & Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

vounteers packing food parcels
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still volunteer opportunities out there. Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

There's something about Christmas that encourages people to spread a little cheer. Maybe it's all those twinkling lights, inflatable snowmen, sugar cookies and peppy songs — or maybe it's just the eggnog. Whatever the reason, it's great that Christmas gets us thinking about others and how we can help those in need, because plenty of people can use a little help.

If you've gotten the bug to volunteer on Christmas, you'll need to figure out exactly what to do. Start by thinking about your skills and interests. Are you good at baking or carpentry, for example, or do you prefer to be in the background doing busy work? Next, determine which organizations would benefit most from these talents.

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If you're not sure, you can contact local service organizations for advice. In addition to directing you to specific community projects, these groups may need help with their own holiday-related ventures. Churches, libraries and community centers are also good sources of information. And, of course, don't forget to look online for options, both local and abroad.

The group GVI, for example, operates diverse volunteer programs around the globe, with specific sessions targeted to the Christmas season. While your task may not be related to the holiday — you may be assisting English teachers, for example, or working on a sustainable development initiative — you'll be able to experience how people from another culture celebrate Christmas.

Today, with COVID-19 upending pretty much every aspect of our lives, traditional Christmas volunteer opportunities will be altered. No heading inside nursing homes to sing carols, for example, or dishing up group dinners for dozens. But that doesn't mean there are no ways to help. The projects may just look a little different this time.

Read on to find out where, and how, you can volunteer at Christmas.

Places to Volunteer at Christmastime

food distrubution
A volunteer loads apples and other food into the trunk of a car at the Share Your Christmas food distribution event at Eastwind Pentecostal Church. Central Florida food banks continue to struggle to meet demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

One of the most common places to volunteer during a typical Christmas season is a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. If that piques your interest, the Salvation Army or your local shelter are good places to contact for possible opportunities.

Nursing homes and hospitals are always great options for volunteering, too, because many patients don't get visitors around the holidays. You can help ease patients' loneliness by bringing in a deck of cards and playing a few games or simply sitting down for a chat.

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Because there's often a spike in violence around Christmas, battered women's shelters typically need people to donate items such as toiletries, clothes and toys. In addition to donating these items, you could also help pick up others' donations, serve meals at the shelter or help entertain the children.

If animals are your thing, the local animal shelter may welcome help walking dogs on Christmas so the staff can have the day off.

Other ideas include volunteering to wrap the gifts that organizations get for needy children, helping the local hospice or meals-on-wheels group deliver meals, and inviting a solider who is stationed away from his or her family for Christmas dinner.

During the COVID-19 era, all of these groups will still need help. But the way in which you provide assistance needs to be tweaked. No group Christmas dinner at the homeless shelter? Then volunteer to pick up and deliver food baskets instead. Not allowed to go inside nursing homes or hospitals? Then sing carols outside residents' windows or perform a virtual concert. You might still find folks getting together to wrap gifts for the needy, but everyone will probably be wearing masks while they do it.

Much like nursing homes and hospitals, domestic violence shelters are also likely off-limits to volunteers. But, you can still stuff Christmas stockings for women and kids at home and drop off the stockings at the shelter. In Washington, D.C., Catholic Charities is asking for volunteers to decorate the porches and patios at various shelters or to sew face coverings at home. You can also write notes of encouragement and cheer to people in shelters, hospitals and nursing homes, or drop some off for stranded military personnel. Just go to your favorite charity's website and look for a section on COVID-19 or volunteering to see what opportunities are available.

Remember, too, that lots of organizations and churches offer programs that enable you to adopt a low-income family for the holidays by providing them with Christmas dinner and gifts. These meals and gifts can be delivered safely, even during a pandemic.

And though just sending money might not seem as meaningful as volunteering, most charities will really appreciate a donation during the holidays.

No matter which volunteering option you choose, you'll end up helping not only others, but yourself. Read on to find out how.

The Importance of Volunteering at Christmas

Unfortunately for many of us, Christmas doesn't always equate to visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. The commercialization and pressure of the season can sometimes be difficult to deal with. So taking a little break from the festivities to help others is often just what we need to regroup and renew.

More than a few studies have shown that volunteering results in numerous benefits, both physical and mental. People who volunteer feel more connected to their communities and useful to society, for example, and enjoy an expanded social circle. Volunteering can introduce you to new hobbies and interests, provide you with a sense of purpose and increase your self-confidence. Studies show it also helps you combat stress, anxiety, depression and anger. Volunteering, in short, makes you happy.

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Research also indicates volunteering can be good for your overall physical health. Specifically, studies show volunteers have lower mortality rates than people who do not volunteer.

One less-pondered benefit of volunteering is that it often requires some training, which gives you the chance to learn new skills. In unstable economic times, such as during a pandemic, it's always a great idea to take any opportunity to beef up your resume and skill set.

Volunteering may also provide you with some perspective. If you're a little blue around the holidays, perhaps because you're missing a loved one or are stressed by all of the preparations, think of how hard the season is for families experiencing homelessness or barely making ends meet. You might also make some new friends with other volunteers.

If all of these benefits aren't motivation enough to volunteer this Christmas, considering taking on a project to set a good example for your loved ones. It's the easiest way to show them that the holidays aren't just about a large feast and presents. And who knows? Maybe you'll like the experience so much you'll decide to volunteer all year-round.

Originally Published: Jun 3, 2009

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Atlanta Mission. "Welcome to the Atlanta Mission volunteer site!" (Dec. 8, 2020) https://atlantamission.volunteerhub.com/lp/volunteerfromhome/
  • Boudin, Michelle. "30 Christmas Volunteer Opportunities and Ideas." SignUpGenius. (Dec. 8, 2020) https://www.signupgenius.com/home/christmas-volunteer-opportunities-ideas.cfm
  • Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Washington. "Holiday Volunteer Opportunities." (Dec. 8, 2020) https://www.catholiccharitiesdc.org/covid-19-volunteer-opportunities/
  • Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS). "The Health Benefits of Volunteering." (Accessed 5/1/5/09) http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf
  • Dube, Ryan. "Top 7 Christmas Charity Organizations That Help Low Income Families." Make Use Of. Dec. 3, 2018. (Dec. 8, 2020) https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/7-top-charities-that-offer-online-christmas-help-for-low-income-families/
  • GVI. "Volunteering at Christmas." (Dec. 8, 2020) https://www.gviusa.com/christmas-volunteering/
  • Help Guide. "Volunteering and Its Surprising Benefits." (Dec. 8, 2020) https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/volunteering-and-its-surprising-benefits.htm
  • Mental Health America. Fact Sheet: Holiday Depression and Stress." (May 5, 2009) http://mentalhealthamerica.net/index.cfm?objectid=C7DF954D-1372-4D20-C80ED0A7AB69D250