Heart Searching: Comfort and joy: Fed up with turkey? Home alone this Christmas? Cathy Aitchison looks at some alternative ways of spending the festive season

CHRISTMAS 1991 promised to be a difficult time for John: his marriage had broken up, and he was homeless, floor-hopping between friends in London: 'I wasn't in the mood for Christmas that year; I just wanted to skip it altogether.'

He was persuaded by a friend to help with Crisis' 'Open Christmas' for the homeless: 'I suppose I thought of it as a way of getting out of Christmas - but it turned out to be a good way of spending it, and I enjoyed it more than I had done for quite a while. There's a spirit about the place; it's hard work, but you get caught up in the celebrations.' This is his third Christmas as a Crisis volunteer.

Crisis has been operating since 1967, and this year it has three sites in London, open 24 hours a day, plus a mobile site operating from a converted truck. The sites will be run by almost 1,800 volunteers, who are chosen on a first come, first served basis, the only qualification being a willingness to muck in.

'We enjoy using skilled people such as doctors, dentists, chiropodists, advice workers,' says Martin Vincent, one of the two co-ordinators. 'But perhaps one of the most valuable things a volunteer can do is to talk to the guests; homeless people are usually rejected by society - the Open Christmas is a place where they feel safe, they can just sit and chat over a cup of tea.'

As perhaps the best known Christmas project for the homeless, Crisis is always over-subscribed, but around the country there are many local projects needing volunteers, such as the Christmas shelter in Maidenhead, Berkshire, which is organised by the town's churches; or the projects in Southport and Lancaster, in Lancashire, which are assisted by Crisis's office in Manchester.

Lawrence is one of the helpers with the Southport project; he started there last year and is now the night manager. 'I came down on Christmas Day night and volunteered my services. At the time I was drinking heavily; but working here, I saw what drink does to you, so I thought 'I'm helping these people, but I've got to help myself first.' It changed my life, and I cut my drinking down drastically.'

Anne Richards, one of the organisers from High Street Methodist Church in Maidenhead, says: 'We get solicitors, office workers, caterers - anybody is welcome.' Mike Fitzsimons is the Christmas Shelter co-ordinator in Lancaster: 'There isn't a typical volunteer, they are right across the board. Some come with friends, or on their own - some bring their children, which means a lot to the clients.'

For some people the ideal Christmas is one where they can get away from the demands of others. For the past few years, Susie has spent Christmas alone, by choice. 'When I was a child we had close family Christmases and it was all rather magical. Then after my mother died, Christmas became very difficult for many years, a very sad time. Then I thought, right, I'm not doing it anyone else's way any more, I'm doing it my way.'

It was a difficult stand for her to make. But now that her family no longer live in England, she can spend Christmas alone without feeling guilty, despite friends' efforts to persuade her otherwise: 'A lot of people find it difficult to let me spend Christmas alone, but it is what I want. What always happens is that all my friends end up coming round here when they can't bear their families another minute - it's like a sanctuary from the whole Christmas bit.' Di Stubbs is the National Outreach Officer at the Samaritans, the helpline for anyone in distress. 'We're not necessarily any busier at Christmas, perhaps because people can't find the opportunity to ring, or because they don't realise we're open. But the calls tend to be longer, and there is often an edge of intensity to them.' Ms Stubbs is also an ordinary Samaritan volunteer and she often works one of the Christmas shifts in her local branch.

The Samaritans listen and help callers to talk about their feelings, without advising or telling them what they should do: 'It's their life, their solution. We explore the actions which they have thought of themselves, and that way hope comes, but it's their own hope, not imposed by another person.'

Beth, a law student from the United States, is trying to keep busy so that she will have no time to be homesick this Christmas. She is not sure yet where she'll be: she is travelling on her own round Britain on the Slow Coach, which offers a clockwise circuit of the country, stopping at youth hostels in various towns including London, Bath, Edinburgh and York. 'The other students are going to the continent, but I didn't have enough money, and I wanted to see some of the rest of Britain.'

Slow Coach passengers are not obliged to stay in the youth hostels, although it is often a convenient option, and a good way of meeting other travellers. Aaron, a New Zealander, is holidaying in Britain: 'I want to meet a few people and stop at most of the places for two or three days. I thought it was going be York for Christmas, but I've just reviewed the timetable, and now it looks like Edinburgh.'

Linda and Louise, from Adelaide in Australia, plan to travel through France and Spain, taking night trains and hopefully reaching the Italian Riveria by Christmas: 'My parents were a bit sad that I'd be away, but I'm a big girl now, I can't be at home all the time,' said Linda. 'I'll ring them on Christmas Day and reverse the charges.'

Crisis: 0800 446 000 (for donations - no more volunteers needed)

Samaritans: open 24 hours. For local number, please check in your telephone directory

Slow Coach: 0249 891959

Youth Hostels Association: 0727 855215

(Photograph omitted)

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