While stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, on a five-year assignment with the US Foreign Service, Tim Farrell got used to traveling long distances at the holidays. But his goal was never to visit and exchange gifts with family.
"They have everything they need," he says of his seven siblings and 14 nieces and nephews in New York and New Jersey. "They don't need anything else from me."
Instead, for each of the past three years, Mr. Farrell has flown to Budapest, Hungary, and then ridden four bumpy hours in a bus to Romania's poorest county. There, in Barlad, he says he's found "the real idea of Christmas" by spending three weeks among some 35 orphaned and abandoned children, ages 4 and under, who turn to him for food, hugs, and modest toys (when he's dressed as Santa).
For Farrell and a small but growing number of fellow traveling volunteers, a service trip has become the holiday season's big-ticket item. One sign: in response to growing demand, Global Volunteers of St. Paul, Minn., has grown its list of holiday season trips from one in 2001 to eight this year.
Offered by various outfitters, tax-deductible service trips for one to three weeks generally cost between $1,000 and $3,000. Last year, Farrell spent $2,200, plus airfare. Many participants raise funds by inviting friends and family to sponsor their trips. The sponsors then feel personally invested in the outreach, according to Global Volunteers.
All told, costs can sometimes be comparable to what a family would spend on plane tickets and gifts. But people who have taken service trips during the holidays insist they're getting the season's best deals.
One advantage to service trips now is lower prices, in some cases. Earthwatch Institute in Maynard, Mass., for instance, cut prices on its December trips by 25 percent this year. The reason: to encourage participants, even in a busy and demanding season, to gather data from the field in order to save endangered reefs, otters, macaws, caterpillars, and 800-pound turtles.
"The scientists need help" whenever their schedules permit a research project, says Earthwatch spokeswoman Delta Willis. But, she adds, "December is a time when there's a lot of competition for people's attention." Now, instead of paying the usual $2,849 for 10 days of snorkeling, scuba diving, and documenting sealife around Thailand's coral reefs, participants pay $2,137 plus a $35 membership fee.
Prices include lodging and food. And while participants must do some scientific observation (videotape otters, tag turtles, take reef measurements), each trip also allows for some free time.
Only about 3 percent of Global Volunteers' 2,000 annual participants take part during the holidays. Still, two categories of people are showing consistent interest, according to the group's president and co-founder, Bud Philbrook. He says parents who say, "My kids have everything," and want to expand their children's horizons, find holiday service trips among some of the world's neediest provide a powerful antidote to the shopping frenzy that comes with the holiday season.
Trips are also common for people who have lost a loved one in the last year and want to radically change their usual Christmas routines.
"They just don't want to spend the holidays home alone," Mr. Philbrook says. "Some people ... would go on a cruise, [but] some instead want to give something back."
A service trip can pay therapeutic dividends at other times, too. That was the case for the family of Katrina Hart of Hamilton, Mass., in 2003.
At the time, the condition of Mrs. Hart's husband had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer appreciate Christmas celebrations and was in an assisted-living facility. Mrs. Hart suggested a radical change: a service trip with her daughters and their husbands to Cuba.
"Mom always told us, 'When you're feeling bad about yourself, do something for someone else,' " remembers her daughter, Alexandra Hart, a San Diego artist. They avoided crowds by flying on Christmas Day and distributed medical supplies to Cuban clinics through local organizations for disabled people.
The next year, Alexandra and her husband and mother undertook an even bolder adventure: sleeping on cots in an Immokalee, Fla., homeless shelter. On Christmas Day, they helped serve hot meals to a few thousand needy people in a city park.
After dinner, Alexandra photographed dozens of Haitian and Guatemalan children receiving toys from someone dressed as Santa Claus.
"It was very poignant to study each face as the children sat for the first time on an enormous, fluffy, Santa Claus lap," she says. "I was moved to tears almost the entire day [by] the newness, the excitement" of the moment reflected in the children's faces.
The popularity of short-term service trips in the summer is rising, but some trip leaders have hesitated to extend them into the winter holidays. Gale Hull of Ipswich, Mass., for instance, leads relief trips by Partners In Development to Haiti and Guatemala throughout the year. But she says the group has yet to offer an opportunity during Christmas week.
"We didn't think people would go," Ms. Hull says.
Still, those who have gone at Christmas say the benefits of service travel are magnified when volunteers and local residents take time together for worship, feasting, and gifts.
Last year, Joy Campbell of Lansing, Mich., and her husband, Kyle Enger, spent Christmas in a rural Tanzanian village. The only electricity came from generators and the running water was sporadic. They traveled in mid-December for pragmatic reasons, since it was the only time when both could get four consecutive weeks off from work.
But as soon as they arrived, Ms. Campbell appreciated the timing: "It was liberating to be away from the rush and the ads and the countdown to Christmas."
Through Christmas Eve, the couple worked daily on a mural and a library construction project while local residents spent long days attending to basic needs. On Christmas Day, however, everyone took a rare break. As a special treat, two village brothers ate rice and shared a Coca-Cola.
Residents donned their cleanest clothes and attended three worship services. There they performed traditional Lutheran liturgies in Swahili, with the complement of drums. At the offering, the poorest residents dropped bananas and coffee beans into the collection plate. After the benediction, a church leader auctioned off the foodstuffs in the courtyard to the highest bidders.
For Campbell, Christmas among the Tanzanians left her feeling grateful and content.
"People there get by with so little," she says. "They're content to play with sticks and sit in dirt and watch a bug.... It confirmed for me that we're on the right track" in terms of choosing to live simply, with no TV and just one car, back in the United States.
In some cases, mission trips at the holidays seem to spawn new traditions. For students and faculty at St. Joseph's College of Maine, the New Year almost always begins with a service trip. The settings aren't always pretty. Three years ago, 10 volunteers built concrete homes in the poorest slum on earth in Port-au-prince, Haiti. Last year, another 20 provided dental care to Mayan villagers in a remote mountain enclave in Guatemala.
Settings aside, Associate Professor of Theology Steven Bridge has come to regard the annual trip as "a refresher course in how to live a richer life."
"They have these rich social networks [in Guatemala], where all the adults watch all the kids, so 20 or 30 kids are playing together at any given time," Mr. Bridge says. "All the men go to work in the same cane field, and they come back together. [In Maine], we rarely see the neighbors....
"It's good to see differences, see alternative ways of doing things," he says, "rather than just think, 'This is our culture. This is the way we do it, so that's the only way there is.' "