While the rest of the nation eats turkey and gathers round the Christmas tree, Jews across the country are exploring the real meaning of the season of goodwill. This year hundreds of people will dedicate the 12 days of Christmas to volunteering with the homeless, the sick, Holocaust survivors, the elderly and disabled people - taking a break on Christmas Day, which falls on Shabbat.
But those wanting to volunteer on the "off-chance" should take note; many charities will not take on people at short notice who have not had at least a CRB check, so make inquiries in advance. Leonie Lewis, director of the Jewish Volunteer Network (JVN), advises: "Many charities like Nightingale and Norwood would love extra volunteers but people do need some kind of experience to work with them. But there are many other options which don't require experience.
"Our community can really make the difference, especially for non-Jewish charities."
Tikun, the Jewish educational charity run by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, expects 500 people to take part in 45 activities over seven days between Christmas Eve and New Year. The project "Light up a Life" includes a packathon at the charity's headquarters. Causes include Sha'are Zedek Medical Centre in Jerusalem, Stepping Stone, a homeless day centre in Finchley and Supem Uyana, a home for children with Down's syndrome in Sri Lanka.
JVN is supporting a "gift wrap" for St Luke's Hospice at St Ann's Shopping Centre in Harrow from December 18, which will raise money for the hospice. Tikun will do a "chocolate drop" where volunteers will deliver tons of donated Cadbury's chocolate to those in need, from the sick to the elderly.
Jo Hyams, project and volunteer co-ordinator, said: "There's something for everyone, because obviously parents can't take along very young children to help at homeless shelters. Even if volunteering with people is not your thing, you can take part in the packathon, and people who don't want to give their time can donate items."
She added: "At Tikun we are about Jewish education, but learning about mitzvot is pretty useless if you don't do them. We show people how to put them into practice."
Elderly and disabled
Although Jewish Care say they are wary of attracting unqualified and unvetted volunteers during the Christmas period, other organisations are running programmes where volunteers can support elderly people in the community. Through Tikun, volunteers can work at seven different homes and centres for the elderly. Sonia Douek, head of volunteering and community development at Jewish Care, said: "Jewish Care is delighted to be partnering Tikun which is organising a wonderful range of volunteering opportunities over the festive period including at some of our centres and care homes."
At Rela Goldhill Lodge, for adults with physical disabilities and sensory impairments, those experienced with wheelchairs can take part in a games afternoon, arts, crafts and cookery. At Rubens House, volunteers can do karaoke and indoor gardening. The Holocaust Survivors' Centre in Hendon has a discussion group and befriending scheme running over Christmas and New Year.
The League of Jewish Women is running a visiting scheme over the Christmas period to give much-needed seasonal company to people with visual impairments. The Friendship Circle in Manchester is looking for befrienders to help Jewish teenagers with special needs make friends - and to keep them busy during the seasonal break.
Mental health support
Tikun is running volunteering opportunities at JAMI house in Golders Green – including arts and crafts, baking, drama sessions and cooking.
Tanya Harris, mental health lead at JAMI, said demand for support is high over Christmas.
"All the additional bank holidays this year means a lot of support is unavailable for people with mental health problems. The normal services people get aren't running.
"Hospitals are open on an emergency basis, statutory support services aren't available.
"We want to make sure people aren't stuck at home alone over the whole holiday period, not because it's Christmas, but because there's so little support available. We're open, we're here for people."
Homeless charity Crisis is one of the most high-profile organisations to work with over the Christmas period - with celebrity supporters from members of Coldplay to Jeremy Paxman. Many Jewish organisations and synagogues, including Chesed and Tikun, run their own trips to help out at Crisis centres across the UK.
Leslie Morphy, CEO of Crisis, said the charity valued its links with Jewish volunteers. "We welcome the Jewish community in volunteering as specialists or simply as befrienders. We have always enjoyed a pro-active and productive relationship with the Jewish community and we are sure that it will be as fruitful this year.".
Duties include cooking, preparing sleeping arrangements, hairdressing, massage and repairing clothes. Trained doctors, dentists and pharmacists are also needed at the centres.
Tikun is running volunteering with the homeless at Simon Community in Camden, taking tea and soup out to people on the streets.
Watford New Hope Trust day centre for homeless adults is also looking for volunteers to help prepare food and wash up during the bank holidays when the centre is busy.