It’s becoming a Christmas tradition! For the past two years, motivated by the challenging realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sanctuary team has shared about the ways we attend to our own self-care. Our hope has been that some of these practices would spark ideas in your life and serve as gentle invitations for you to pause, slow down, rest, and reflect.
This year, with many difficult events occuring in our personal lives and in the world at large, we’re focusing on self-care through the lens of the five senses. Engaging our senses can counter the stress response in our bodies and help us experience the present moment with a new perspective. It can be immensely helpful to engage the senses as a daily practice—and especially in moments of anxiety or stress. Our senses may help ground us in the present and make us aware of the gifts that surround us, including the gift of God’s presence with us. At Christmastime we remember his arrival as a tiny, vulnerable baby who experienced the world with all of his senses, just as we do.
Perhaps there is a particular sense you’d like to use more in this season. Perhaps there is a fresh idea that will inspire something new for you or remind you of something you’ve forgotten. Maybe there’s a recipe you’d like to try (be forewarned: we like to bake!).
Thank you for journeying with Sanctuary this year. All of us are wishing you God’s comfort and peace during this Christmas season—however you spend it, in whatever form it takes. May you know the nearness of Emmanuel, God with us.
sight, hear, touch
At this time of year, I love to forage for evergreen branches in local wild spaces. Not only is spending time out in nature good for my mental health, but the boughs I bring home make festive mantle and tabletop decorations. The experience of collecting the branches is delightfully sensory as well: I like to notice the different colours and textures of the bark, needles, and pinecones; feel the weight of each branch in my hands; and breathe in their woodsy-pine scent. Filling my home with greenery in the middle of winter reminds me that in Christ, life and hope are ever present.
Inspired by Lauren Earl’s Modern Stained Glass Nativity Set, I take a moment each Advent to curate a similarly minimalist arrangement from items around the home. Sometimes my friends partake, too. We have created nativity scenes with all sorts of themes from beach stones to nuts (with Jesus represented by a tiny cashew) to mugs.
Lighting candles is one of my favourite ways to get cozy and engage in self-care. I have candles whose scents remind me of certain seasons, people, memories, and places. The gingered blackberry sparkler that reminds me of hosting a home full of friends and laughter, the mango candle in a real coconut that hints at warmer places, the evergreen candle that smells like Christmas poured into a jar—all of these are special to me. Candles are my way of setting the mood and intention, whether it’s starting my working day or ending it by curling up on the couch. I find the scents help me focus and connect with positive emotions and memories.
Listening to music is always a self-care practice for me—especially at this time of year. I love holiday music, but sometimes it can be hard to cut through the commercial “noise” that often bombards me in stores and shopping centers at Christmastime. One of my favourite bands year-round is Ordinary Time, but I especially love their Advent songs. They have recorded several albums just for this time of year (Good News, In the Town of David), and this year they have also curated a Spotify playlist of some of their most popular songs for Advent—a combination of old familiar songs as well as new ones that I come back to year after year.
from Mary Frances
During the Christmas season, I’ll often pick up a favorite book or two and plow through them again. Ken Follett’s historical fiction tomes seem to be ready-made for a time of year when the dreary weather makes it harder to get outside (at least in Vancouver!). In the season of gift-giving, his books remind me that imagination and creativity are a couple of the great gifts God has given us. The books also inspire me to “show up to the page” and tap into my own imagination and creativity to craft stories of my own.
I’d say the biggest and most practical way I like to practice self-care is simply by exercising. I like to search for free, no-equipment workout routines on YouTube that I can easily follow. When kids are around or I need to multitask, pushups, squats, and pull-ups routines are flexible and can be done in intervals. It’s always entertaining and encouraging to see my youngest toddler do his own set of squats. After completing a workout, I usually have even more energy and focus to give to others and creative projects. The ability to actually be present with others and not stuck in rumination mode is by far the biggest benefit!
smell, taste, touch
When I was growing up, the holiday season always meant lots of baking in our home. And I can’t get enough of ginger molasses cookies. The smell of the spices and molasses, the taste of the ginger, the feeling of rolling the dough between my palms to make perfect round balls—it’s so good! Dip those cookies in some hot coffee or tea, and it’s perfection 🙂
When my first daughter was born, I started two Christmas crafting traditions. The first is an annual task of making a Christmas ornament for each of my children, often symbolizing something special from the year gone by. It is wonderful to reflect with our children on how God has been faithful in the past year and how the ornaments can represent his goodness to us as a family, regardless of the challenges of the year. The second is a one-time craft that gets used each year—a personalized, cross-stitched stocking for each of them. Much time and love has gone into these crafts, and it’s fun putting them up each year and remembering!
Sometimes the holidays can be difficult—the expectation all around us of happiness and good spirits can make it even more challenging when we don’t feel that way. Whether it’s grief, loneliness, hard memories, languishing mental health, or anything else, “all the bruises seem to surface, like mud beneath the snow.” This lyric is from “Snow” by Sleeping at Last, a great song for acknowledging the often-unspoken side of this season. If you’re not in this space, perhaps listen to the song and say a prayer for someone you know who might be having a hard time with the holidays this year. And if you are in this space, I hope you find the season of Advent—quiet waiting with a small, flickering candle of hope—a place where the Lord meets you. “Like the petals in our pockets, may we remember who we are, unconditionally cared for by those who share our broken hearts.”
On some of the more festive days, I will put a few pine branches with water in the slow cooker to fill the space with their amazing smell. Similarly, I love making apple cider because it fills the room with the scent of all the spices.
Is it outlandish to say I go to the beach? I know for many reading this post, Christmas and beach aren’t a traditional coupling, but for this Australian, it makes total sense. In fact, spending time at the ocean is one of my best self-care practices all year round. Even if you don’t get into the ocean, higher levels of “blue space visibility” (seeing bodies of water) are associated with lower psychological distress. It also evokes awe. When I look out over the ocean and hear the waves crash and rumble, I get a sense of its vastness. It reminds me of a God who created the massive things of this world and who also dwelt in a mother’s womb. Experiencing something greater than yourself has been shown to make us more patient, humble, curious, and creative. If you don’t live near a body of water, don’t worry. Watching a nature documentary can have a similar effect.
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, great and wide;
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
Psalm 104:24-25 (NRSV)
smell, touch, taste
My grandma has instilled in me a love for baking, and she’s passed on some favourite recipes and expert tips over the years. I love making her apple crumble pie (download the recipe here), even though the process can be quite long: kneading and rolling the dough for the pie crust, peeling and chopping the apples, mixing together the crumble topping, and assembling it all so it looks (hopefully) as beautiful as it tastes. Creating something with my hands helps me slow down and appreciate the process that baking takes. My family appreciates the end result!
Sanctuary UK offers workshops on mental health and wellbeing, and researching this has led me to change my own practices in a number of areas. The practice I’ll share is simple: conscious breathing. It’s a great technique to help regulate your nervous system if you’re picking up on stress in your body. Simply sit upright and breathe in for four counts. Then exhale for seven counts. Repeat this cycle a number of times and then notice the difference. Advent offers us an invitation to slow down, to wait—when all around us is busy. Similarly, conscious breathing is a helpful reminder of the importance of finding a restful place before God, while completing our body’s stress cycle.
sight, smell, touch
The natural beauty outdoors fills me with joy and peace, and so in these shorter days when I spend more time indoors, I look for ways to make my indoor spaces beautiful and cozy to foster the same feelings. I love homemade decorations that minimize waste and currently enjoy making citrus garlands for my mantelpiece and citrus ornaments for my Christmas tree. The best part? They require little crafting ability, smell great, and are fully compostable!
sight, smell, touch
Echoing Regula, I also love making dried oranges around the holidays and using them for decoration. After I’ve cut my oranges into slices for drying, I toss the extra ends of the orange into a pot with water, rosemary, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and star anise. I simmer everything on low, adding water to the pot as it evaporates. It makes the entire house smell so wonderful, and creates a welcoming environment for guests during the holidays. I also find it really calming to check on the pot throughout the day, refill it with water as needed, and smell the steam as I stir.
smell, hear, touch, taste
Something I enjoy doing every year at this time is Christmas baking. A favourite recipe of mine is Turtle cookies, but it’s quite an involved process to make them. Fortunately this gives me plenty of time to listen to music, which helps me to focus and feel less stressed. Whether it’s new music, something I’ve listened to a thousand times, or just listening to a podcast, I love putting in my headphones and baking up a storm!
My great Aunt Marion, who passed away years ago, was a prolific artist who worked in many different mediums. When I was small, she made a wall hanging depicting the Madonna and child for my first communion. It’s a flat, oval piece of wood with a clay surface on which she carefully inscribed the outlines of mother and child in white and brown; her fingerprints are indented in the clay, and her signature is carved in the back of the wood. At Christmastime, I take out this piece of art and feel its rough and dimpled texture. These humble materials and the image itself speak to me of our humble King who came to us as a baby. I’m also reminded that in offering gifts of creativity to others, we never know how far our love will reach.
For a wonderful grounding exercise that engages the five senses, you may enjoy listening to this meditation by Hillary McBride.
For more self-care ideas from us, check out these posts from the previous two years.