Spending Christmas without family or friends can be an acutely lonely experience. Around Germany, volunteers are busy providing Christmas cheer for those who find themselves alone during the holidays.
For Peter Kühweidler, Christmas Eve begins in the kitchen at four in the morning, preparing beef broth for a stew or regional German dishes like Sauerbraten, a pot roast served with dumplings. He's expecting around 120 guests - many of whom will be elderly, without family, poor or homeless.
Peter Kühweidler and his wife Angelika run a restaurant in the village of Wesseling, just outside Cologne in western Germany. For the past 16 years, Christmas for him has meant strapping on his apron in the late afternoon of December 24 and getting ready to greet his guests.
"The tinsel and Christmas ornaments light up - just like the guests' eyes," says Kühweidler with a chuckle, adding, "My wife's almost sick of that line, but this is a very special experience every year."
The meal is also different every year. The cook sees many of the same guests time and again, but there are also newcomers. They may be refugees new to Germany, for instance. And sometimes German Muslims come to the meal, so Kühweidler makes sure he offers beef as well as pork dishes.
For him, it's about giving back some of the assistance and care he received after the loss of one of his parents when he was growing up in Austria. And Kühweidler is in good company when it comes to providing a service for those who would otherwise spend Christmas alone. German pop singer Frank Zander's enormous Christmas feast at an expensive Berlin hotel has acquired legendary status. This year, German celebrities like the co-chairman of the Green Party, Cem Özdemir, and the boxer Graciano Rocchigiani served Zander's meal to around 2,800 poor and homeless people.
Search for companionship
Once the hectic shopping rush dies down in cities on December 24 and there's hardly anyone on the streets, homeless people may feel especially alone. But they're certainly not the only ones to feel this way at Christmas, as Marita Hoff knows. This year is the fourth time she's organized a Christmas celebration just outside Bremen that welcomes all comers.
"I noticed once that a young female student was there. And it turned out that she didn't get along with her parents, but she didn't want to stay alone in her dormitory, either," says Hoff. She also talks about a daughter and her single mother who sat off to the side and simply watched the festivities unfold. For them, it was clearly a matter of wanting to be surrounded by other people.
Marita Hoff, who is 69 years old and retired, prefers to spend the holiday with people she doesn't know "because the human element comes to the fore rather than consumer culture." Her children have long since grown up and left home, and her husband also volunteers at Christmas.
"I've discovered what for me is a new kind of Christmas," she reflects.