"We had always felt we were busier over the Christmas period, but the evidence was anecdotal," says a spokeswoman. "Since we introduced our single national number, we have been able to see the numbers of calls going up." Calls to Childline about family-related matters doubled to 29 per cent of the total at Christmas last year, while the Institute of Family Therapy and Relate, the marriage counselling service, both report that their peaks are now - in the post-Christmas lull.
"People hope Christmas will sort things out in the family, and when it doesn't they think seriously about getting help," says Vivienne Gross, clinical director at the Institute of Family Therapy. The antidote, she suggests, is not to hope for too much. "If you hype up Christmas, you are setting the seeds of disappointment."
Julia Cole of Relate says: "A straw poll to our different regions showed that calls go up by about 25 per cent in mid-January. Something goes on at Christmas that makes people feel the need to get to grips with their problems. And if it is your first Christmas alone, after divorce, separ- ation or bereavement, you can't help looking back. That makes it even more poignant."
This year, Relate teamed up with the Mental Health Foundation to issue guidelines for dealing with Christmas. These stories make us remember that for some people - the lonely, the old, the depressed - it's almost impossible to see this season in a positive light.
ELIZABETH MORGAN'S parents divorced acrimoniously earlier this year. She is a student, aged 20, has two brothers aged 23 and 18, and lives with flatmates in Surrey. "I inherited all the family's Christmas decorations, even the ones we'd made at school. No one else wanted them, so I put them up. It was strange seeing them in my student flat. I burst into tears when I found the pompom Santa that my brother made when he was five. It had gone up on the tree every year since then.
"This year I spent Christmas cooking a turkey for five on a Baby Belling, in a friend's flat near where my two brothers live. They have both had to find places of their own since mum and dad split up. We had two other friends with nowhere to go. One doesn't get on with his stepmother and isn't made welcome in her house, and the other lives up north and couldn't get home in time. Presents were out - we're all skint.
"We had planned to go to mum's for Christmas, but she said the boys never bother to visit her normally so she wasn't bothering with Christmas this year. She was going to work in a homeless shelter on Christmas morning instead. Dad was so upset when we said we were hoping to go to mum's that we felt we couldn't ask him if we could go to him instead.
"In any case, my younger brother hasn't spoken to my dad for months. They had such a dreadful argument about our mother that my brother jumped out of a moving car to get away. They didn't even speak on his 18th birthday. My brother isn't really speaking to anyone. Christ-mas is meant to be the season of goodwill, but you sometimes just stop and think: 'My God, why are we doing all this?' "
ELSIE MATTHEWMAN, 57, was bereaved in 1996. She lives in Sheffield, and has two grown-up children. "I put up the trimmings, sent the cards out, did the presents, but I did it all automatically - without joy. I've forgotten what it's like to feel happy, glad or joyful. My husband, Tony, loved Christmas. We had a party every year, and he was the life and soul of it - he loved giving pleasure to people.
"On Christmas morning he would always bring me a cup of tea in bed, and when they were smaller the kids would come in and we'd open our presents. It was magic. Even the last Christmas before he died, when he was very, very ill, he still brought me my tea on Christmas morning. This second Christmas was even worse than last year. Last year we were still in shock. This year I've realised that this is for the rest of my life. We will never be that happy, loving, complete family again. I feel a deep sadness and a longing for those happier times.
"I've been invited all over, I couldn't put enough hours in the day to go to all the places I've been invited to. But I want to stay in. I don't like trying to put a brave face on, or have other people feeling they have to try and perk me up. I don't want to put my feelings on to my children. They are very sad, but they both have a life. There was an agony aunt on the television who said: 'Remember, Christmas is only one day,' and she hit the nail on the head - it was only 24 hours to get through.
"The world goes on, and I feel I should be going on, too, but inside me that's not true. It's the penalty for loving and having been loved - someone always has to be left behind. Tony was my support in everything I ever did. We were married 37 years, and courting four years before that, and in all that time we never had a day without a kiss - even if we'd had an argument. Things like that you can never put out of your mind. If I live another 37 years I'll never have that again. I can't see that this will ever be a happy time for me."
IRENE ANGEL is 90 and lives in a rest home in Bournemouth. "I didn't look forward to Christmas this year. I always have done before, but I've been ill this year. I've got nervous problems, and I hurt my leg, and my arm's bad too. I can't even get out of my room or get in the bath. I wasn't able to go out and get cards or presents or anything. I miss the usual family get-together.
"If I'd been feeling more myself I'd have been able to enjoy Christmas. My daughter's house is near by, and there was plenty going on here in the home. But I'm just not well enough. Ninety isn't much of an age these days, there are plenty of people in here older than me who can still walk about and get out when they want to. I can't.
"I wish I could be in my own home. In a place like this you are just a cipher, a nobody where you mean nothing to anybody. It's not like being in your family and being someone. I don't want to be a burden to my daughters, but sometimes I can't help it. I sometimes feel I shouldn't be here any more."
ALLAN GRAY is 57. Born in Sunderland, he now lives in south London and sells the Big Issue outside the Asda superstore in Clapham. "My marriage broke up when I was 45. I'd been married 27 years, and I was devastated. I caught my ex-wife with her boyfriend. I'd never messed around in my marriage, and it hurt. Then I went to Germany, working for a company that went bust after three months. I was stranded with no money. When I managed to get back to London, I ended up in a homeless hostel. I didn't have a penny.
"I've been a family man all my life. I had my two sons and I watched them grow up and I hate being away from them. Christmas in the hostel was very lonely and depressing. They do their best to put a bit of family spirit into it, but it is false in many ways. You have your Christmas dinner, then just sit around watching the telly. You aren't allowed anything to drink.
"I was one of the original 50 vendors of the Big Issue, and the only one left who's still selling. I've got a flat now which I've refurbished myself, I've had a book of poems published. This year I went back to the North-east to spend Christmas with my grandchildren. Christmas is for families and everyone getting together. It should be my last Christmas outside Asda - I'm off to the North-east next year."
In the midst of misery, there is sometimes some hope.
Samaritans: 0345 909090, calls charged at local rate; Childline: 0800 1111; Relate: 01788 573241; Institute of Family Therapy: 0171 391 9150Reuse content