All across the world, thousands of people head to night shelters and food banks to volunteer for Christmas.
The Christmas season seems to bring out the best in us, inspiring donations of both time and money. And it makes sense, since this time of the year is about bringing peace and joy to the world.
Want to find out more about Christmas volunteering? Here’s what you need to know about volunteering over the Christmas season.
What you need to know about volunteering over the Christmas season
Most schools and businesses close at some point between Christmas and New Year, giving you ample time to volunteer.
But all this for-good work, focused around a select date, has its downside.
In recent years, many for-good organisations have been turning prospective volunteers away due to too many volunteer requests in December.
However, they do accept donations, so people wanting to volunteer can still make a contribution. And, volunteers who would still prefer to donate their time are advised to volunteer at another time of the year.
While we would recommend both donating and offering your time, there are many benefits to volunteering over Christmastime that we wouldn’t like anyone to miss out on.
The benefits of Christmas volunteering
As we’ve mentioned, many of us wouldn’t have free-time to volunteer if it weren’t for the holiday season. And, even if you did have time, the entire family might not be able to volunteer together at any other time of the year due to conflicting schedules.
For many people, the holiday season can be a stressful time. This might be because of too many family commitments and longing for loved ones who you can’t see over the festive season for whatever reason.
But, by volunteering during the Christmas period, you can connect with your family on a deeper level, make a positive impact abroad, and chase away any doom and gloom associated with the festive season.
And if you decide to volunteer alone, you can still connect with the people you volunteer with and make lifelong international friends.
Why volunteer abroad?
Volunteering abroad is the perfect way to donate your time and energy to those who are vulnerable during the holiday season, especially if your local for-good organisations are already stocked up on volunteers.
While night shelters in your town or city may have plenty of extra hands to spare on Christmas Day, a relief settlement in Kerala, India, for example, may not.
This is why we ensure that almost all of our community-development projects around the world run throughout December, and over Christmastime too.
This connects volunteers from around the world to the communities and causes that they can have an impact on over the Christmas period.
Where to volunteer this Christmas
Here are some destination ideas for you to volunteer in.
Christmas volunteering in Ghana
Volunteer work in Ghana includes teaching and women’s empowerment. During this time of the year, you can expect hot, tropical conditions with an average temperature of 32°C (89.6°F) and little rainfall.
This is the perfect alternative to a traditional snowy Christmas, because Ghana is a popular beach destination too.
The tropical climate is an invitation to visit cities like Kokrobite, near Accra where our international-development projects are based.
Nativity plays are popular, and Christmas is a time for families to reconnect and share gifts. And, instead of a traditional European Christmas meal, families feast on West African delicacies like grilled fish and tomato, or peanut stew served with a freshly made dough called “fufu”.
Further reading: Ghanaian food: What you’re missing out on
Be sure to greet everyone with “Afishiapa”, which means “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” in Akan – one of the 250 languages and dialects spoken in Ghana.
As a volunteer in Kokrobite, you can choose to support communities in their efforts to improve the quality of education offered at schools. You could also support women to become financially independent and socially empowered.
Kokrobite is a town located along the Atlantic Coast, and our volunteer projects are a great way to learn the customs of this community. Here, you can also pick up a few words in the local dialect, Ga.
Schools close mid-December, and so do our women’s empowerment classes. So, if you start volunteering at the beginning of December, you can spend Christmas Day sightseeing in Kokrobite.
Ghana’s bustling, cosmopolitan capital city, Accra, is just under an hours drive from Kokrobite.
Shop for local handicrafts at the Makola Market, soak up the sun at Labadi Beach, and learn more about Ghana’s independence by visiting a monument in honour of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.
You can also take a trip to Kakum National Park, about three hours from Kokrobite by car. Here, you’ll be able to spot elephants and monkeys in the midst of the densely forested reserve.
Further reading: Ten things to do in Ghana
Christmas volunteering in Peru
Volunteer work in Peru includes teaching and women’s empowerment. And we offer an international development internship. In Peru, you can expect warm, dry conditions with an average temperature of 21°C (70°F).
Our projects are based in Cusco, where you’ll find some of the best places to go for Christmas. Since most of the population identifies as Catholic, Christmas is a big celebration, and festivities light up the city starting in late December.
On a women’s empowerment program, you’ll work with women in the community, and learn how traditional Andean textiles are made from local alpaca wool and natural dyes.
Our sustainable development projects in Peru are based in a small, rural community that still follows many of the practices that date back to the time of the Incan Empire.
Here, you can polish up on your conversational Spanish skills, and even learn Quechua, the language originally spoken by the Inca people.
Our Spanish classes end in the middle of December, but stick around until Christmas Eve, for the huge annual market known as Santuranticuy, or “The Sale of Saints”.
Nativity scenes are more common in Peru than Christmas trees. At the market, you’ll be able to purchase dolls to use in home nativity scenes. This is a must-visit for those who love miniatures, local handicrafts and collectibles.
In the evening, visit Santo Domingo Cathedral for the Misa de Gallo, or “Rooster’s Mass”. Afterwards, enjoy a hot chocolate or a Peruvian type of eggnog known as “ponche”.
And, if you stick around until New Year, you’ll see the streets of Cusco erupt in cascades of yellow ribbons and flowers. The colour represents good luck in the new year.
On New Year’s Eve, gather with local people in the Plaza de Armas – the city’s main square – to eat 12 grapes before the clock strikes 12 – an age-old Spanish tradition.
Christmas volunteering in Cambodia
Volunteer projects in Cambodia include teaching novice Buddhist monks, public health, early childhood development and women’s empowerment. You can expect hot and tropical weather conditions, with an average temperature of 26°C (80°F).
Cambodia is the perfect getaway for those looking to learn about Christmastime in another country. Most Cambodian people follow Buddhist practices, which means that Christmas isn’t really a national affair.
Siem Reap, where our projects are based, is one of Cambodia’s biggest cities, as well as the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park. It’s also an easy place to travel from if you’re looking to see more of Cambodia.
Further reading: What to do in Siem Reap
The major Cambodian festivals take place between late September and early November. Pchum Ben takes place in September, to honour the souls of the ancestors.
One of the most widely attended events in Cambodia, is the Cambodian Water Festival or Bon Om Touk, which takes place sometime in November or early October. It commemorates the time when the Great Lake reverses its flow, and the event is celebrated with competitive boat races.
If you’re interested in volunteering in Cambodia, you’ll be glad to know that none of our projects are disrupted during December, so you can volunteer in Cambodia on Christmas Day.
Further reading: The top four foods to taste at the Siem Reap night market
Christmas volunteering in South Africa
In South Africa, volunteer opportunities include volunteering with children, teaching, sports, public health, or women’s empowerment. Here, you can expect sunny, warm and dry weather with an average temperature of 25°C (77°F).
Christmastime is the summer-holiday season in South Africa. Many local people head to the beach during December to swim or surf in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, or the refreshing Atlantic Ocean.
You’ll also find many South Africans spending the long summer afternoons enjoying a traditional barbeque, known as a “braai”, with their families and friends.
South Africa has absorbed a diversity of colonial influences over its history, including Dutch, Portuguese, French, German and British. This means that some aspects of traditional European Christmases are well established here, and Christmas is a wide-spread celebration.
Further reading: Seven things to know before you volunteer in South Africa
Homes are decorated with Christmas trees – faux or real – under which presents are laid out. Many South Africans will celebrate Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with a big family meal.
Our community-development programs in South Africa are based in Gordon’s Bay, a seaside town about a half an hour’s drive from central Cape Town. Here we work at a nearby community centre, where we run computer and interview skills classes with local women.
Although December is holiday-season for South African students, we run a range of summer-school and supplementary programs throughout the holiday time.
South Africa is a country with 11 official languages. This means that visitors are sometimes confused about how to give a traditional holiday greeting. A friendly “Merry Christmas” will be enough.
In fact, English is the most widely spoken language in Cape Town, followed by Afrikaans, in which “Merry Christmas” translates to “Geseënde Kersfees”.
You can also try out “Merry Christmas” in isiZulu, “Jabulela Ukhisimusi”, or isiXhosa, “Krismesi emnandi”. These are the two most commonly spoken languages throughout the country.
Further reading: Your guide to a responsible South African travel
Christmas volunteering in Mexico
In Mexico, you can volunteer with children. Here, you can expect warm weather, with an average temperature of 25°C (75°F).
December is winter season in Mexico, but that doesn’t mean it involves snow shovels, or getting wrapped up in Christmas-themed sweaters. Mildly-warm weather is the norm in Mexico during December, which is the perfect climate for holiday festivities.
As a primarily Catholic nation, Christmas is celebrated throughout Mexico, although festivities begin a little earlier than in most other Christian countries.
The most popular Mexican Christmas – or Navidad – tradition is Posadas, a nine-day celebration that starts on 16 December. “Posadas” means “inn” or “shelter”, and the celebration enacts Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter.
During Posadas, children walk from house to house singing Christmas carols, known in Mexico as “villancicos”, and stop at houses singing the traditional song, “Las Posadas” to ask homeowners to let them in.
On Christmas Eve, or “Noche Buena”, children are invited in for a family dinner, at the end of which, they’ll get to bash a star-shaped piñata filled with candy.
In Mexico, nativity scenes, or “nacimientos”, are more common than Christmas trees. And, gifts are not exchanged at Christmastime. Instead, gifts are reserved for 6 January for El Día de Los Reyes, which means “the day of the three kings”. On this day, people believe that gifts are delivered by the Baby Jesus, called “El Niñito Dios”.
Another important Mexican celebration in December is the feast day, called “Our Lady of Guadalupe Day”. This day is an important national symbol in Mexico, which takes place on 12 December.
In most Mexican cities, there are processions with singing, incense and flowers, that proceed down the main streets to a cathedral or chapel.
While in Mexico, why not enjoy a popular Mexican Christmas delicacy called “buñuelos”, a fried fritter, covered in sugar or syrup and often flavoured with cinnamon.
You can buy these anywhere on the side of the road during Christmastime. And, it’s a tradition to make a wish and smash the plate after you’ve finished the last crumb.
Many people wish for a good year ahead, as well as healthy, happy families and communities. By partnering with GVI, this can be more than a wish. You can offer hands-on support to help build stronger communities in Mexico.
Christmas volunteering in India
In India, volunteer opportunities include volunteering with children, sports volunteering and women’s empowerment programs. Here, you can expect hot and mostly dry weather, with an average temperature of 27°C (80°F).
Our community development projects in India are based in Kochi, a port city on the western coast of South India. The city is famous for being at the centre of the spice trade for many centuries.
December is the end of the monsoon season in Kerala, where Kochi is situated, as well as the start of the dry season. Kochi is a cosmopolitan city, which means that cultures and traditions are diverse.
The majority of the population in India is Hindu, yet, Kerala has a large Christian population. This means that Christmas celebrations are more popular here than in other locations in India.
Further reading: Six tips for travelling to India
That being said, the biggest event in Kochi over December, is the Cochin Carnival. Historically a Portuguese celebration, the events at the carnival show that Kerala is a state with many different cultures.
Competitions like the traditional boat race and other local sports like kabaddi – a football-like sport without the ball – and kuttiyum kolum – a game similar to baseball – are popular attractions.
More sights to see are the historical buildings, with white paper and flags used to commemorate the event.
GVI volunteers on the women’s empowerment project in Kerala assist organisations like Women of Kerala and Girl’s Voice to create awareness around the importance of equal education, income opportunities and access to public health facilities for every person in Kerala – regardless of gender.
While in Kochi, you’ll witness a Christmas tradition unique to Kerala. Homes and streets are decorated with bamboo and paper stars to represent the star of Bethlehem. The stars are lit in the days leading up to Christmas and represent hope for a better future.
Further reading: Travel to India: How movies can shape your impressions
Christmas volunteering in Nepal
Volunteer opportunities in Nepal include volunteering with children, public health, construction, and women’s empowerment programs. Here, you can expect cool, but sunny weather, with an average temperature of 19°C (66°F).
Our community development projects in Nepal are set in Pokhara. The city is situated at the foot of the Annapurna mountain range, which features some of the highest peaks in the world.
The Phewa Lake is located nearby, and in the centre, you can find a tiny island where the small but culturally-significant temple, the Tal Barahi, is set.
Nepal is a primarily Hindu state. This means that Christmas is not a major festival. But, December is the rice-harvesting season, and big events take place in Pokhara to commemorate this time of the year.
The event celebrates Annapurna, the goddess of food, and commences on 28 December. And, it’s followed by the Phewa Festival on 1 January.
Both festivals take place on the edge of the Phewa Lake in an area known as Basundhara Park.
December is a great time to visit Nepal to learn about the cultural attractions the region has to offer. The lake-side streets are lined with dancers and musicians, as well as food and craft stalls. These attractions fill the air with delicious smells and Nepali folk-music.
An earthquake in Nepal in 2015 left a significant amount of infrastructure and monuments of national and spiritual significance damaged or destroyed.
Although it’s been years since the earthquake hit, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to assist communities in overcoming the after-effects of the earthquake. And, as a volunteer, you can make a positive contribution in a number of ways.
Further reading: The top six reasons to volunteer in Nepal
You can get involved by assisting with educational facility repairs, like painting and light construction. These activities aim to contribute to the objectives outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 4: Quality Education.
As a GVI volunteer in Nepal, you can also teach English to children and provide childhood development support to local staff. You could even contribute towards creating awareness around health and well-being by conducting preventative public health workshops.
Volunteering on our women’s empowerment initiatives in Nepal is another opportunity. By volunteering on these projects, you’ll support Nepali women to empower themselves socially and economically.
If you and your family still crave the sight of Christmas snow after working on one or more of these projects, you can trek to Everest base camp as part of a weekend trip.
While in Nepal during December, you’ll learn to say “Namaste” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Namaste means “I salute the god within you”. What better way to honour the spirit of the festive season than by acknowledging each other’s values and experiences?
Further reading: Five things to know before you visit Nepal
Christmas volunteering in Laos
Volunteer opportunities in Laos include teaching English to novice Buddhist monks, volunteering with children and women’s empowerment programs. Here, you can expect warm and sunny weather, with an average temperature of 25°C (77°F).
December is an ideal month to visit Laos. Temperatures are at their mildest, and it’s the end of the monsoon season. During this time, the Mekong river is as full as it will be for the year and there’s little rainfall.
The Laos population is primarily Theravada Buddhist. This means that Christmas isn’t widely celebrated. Life goes on as usual, with the days being marked by Buddhist rituals.
A celebration that is quite big in Laos during December, isn’t a religious festival, but a national one. Lao National Day is observed on 2 December and commemorates the day Laos achieved independence in 1975. The day is celebrated with a parade of national flags.
The other major celebration in Laos during late December, is the Hmong New Year.
While most of the population of Laos is made up of an ethnic group known as the Lao people, there are many other ethnic groups in the region, one of which is the Hmong group. This group celebrates their folk traditions near the beginning of January.
Our community development projects in Laos are based in Luang Prabang, which was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site due to its well-preserved architecture.
As a volunteer in Laos, you can work with Buddhist novice monks or school-children to improve their English and mathematical skills. You can also help to provide girls and women in Laos with access to opportunities for education.
Although the population of Laos doesn’t celebrate Christmas, they do ascribe to what many would call “festive cheer” all year around. They are committed to a philosophy of living with “muan”, meaning cheerfulness and kindness.
A visit to Laos during December will teach you that while our cultures and specific festivities may differ, common human values are far-reaching.
Find out more about GVI’s top Christmas-volunteering ideas, and get ready for a festive season you’ll never forget.