So many of the songs we sing at Christmas remind us of the importance of hope. Before the infant Jesus took his first breath in that Bethlehem stable, before the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear a son, and long before anyone knew exactly how, when, or where the Messiah would appear, there was hope—a hope that God would draw near with healing, justice, and redemption for humanity. This hope reminded people of faith to continue anticipating and looking for the Messiah, sustaining them while they waited for the miracle we now celebrate at Christmas.
Today, we are still in need of hope. We live in a world that cries out for healing, justice, and redemption. Many of us carry our own private wounds, sorrows, and lived experience of mental health challenges as well. With this in mind, the Sanctuary team is reflecting on practices that connect us to hope and sustain our recovery journeys. Perhaps there is a particular practice you would like to try this December. Or perhaps you feel inspired to reflect on the traditions that sustain your hope and support your mental health through the dark winter months. Either way, we offer these practices and memories as a small, flickering candle—a reminder that the true light of the world has come and is coming again, and that we can carry light for one another while we wait in hope “for the One who lights the darkness” (“Hope for Everyone,” Matt Maher).
For many of us, the pace of the autumn and the shortening of days are a struggle when it comes to our mental health. I’ve noticed that as I orient myself to Advent and the incarnation, something in me breaks open and lets the light shine in.
“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1:14).
The incarnation affirms our world’s physical and material nature, and even our own embodiment. Remembering Christ’s incarnation reorients me to the world, others, and to myself. The physicality of gathering boughs for an Advent wreath, searching for the “perfect” Christmas tree, preparing and decorating the house for “Jesus’ coming,” and setting up the Advent candles reorients me to my body and the material world filled with Christ’s presence. The light shines in!
Early in October, when my mind is still very far from thinking about Christmas, a reminder pops up on my phone to take my children Christmas shopping. It’s the only piece of Christmas shopping we’ll do before December, and it has to happen now because these gifts are going to be sent by a charity, a long way away, in boxes we’ve decorated and filled with toys and pictures and messages, to children that my kids don’t know and will probably never meet. There are, of course, lots of far more efficient ways we could do this: one click and I could just transfer some money instantly, to be used for whatever feels most useful. No waste, no air miles. But I love this practice because it makes hope so tangible. The hope found in Jesus becomes something that’s been chosen with love, something that’s been sent just for you, something you can touch, and open, and play with, and share. The practice of giving and receiving these gifts bonds us all together and makes us part of the same hopeful story even when—like the shepherds and the wise men at the first Christmas, I imagine—we’ve never met and likely never will.
“I’m making a list—I’m checking it twice.” Rather than deciding who’s naughty or nice, I’m choosing a more positive view and enjoying some time for gratitude. One evening, I’ll be taking a pause to make a list of things I’ve been grateful to God for throughout the year. To help my reflection, headlines will include my faith community, family, friends and relationships, and travel and holidays. I’ll also be adding categories such as “meal of the year”— good food is something I’m very grateful for—and “concert of the year,” given my passion for live music. Having said goodbye to my Dad this year, I’ll be especially remembering the gifts he offered me throughout my life, too.
From Nicole J.
One of our traditions is to listen only to Advent songs—songs about waiting and hoping for Christ—until we get to December 25th, when we finally listen to Christmas music. (And, it does feel like “finally!” at that point.) This practice serves more than just discovering every possible version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”—and there are many. I have found that cultivating expectant hope over this period of time helps me to more consciously feel my own and the world’s need for Jesus’ deliverance. This, in turn, really readies me to feel the excitement and joy of celebrating the “everlasting wonder, [that] Christ was born the Lord of all.”
And the hope cultivated during Advent is not fully quenched at Christmas, but extends further as we hope for Jesus’ full restoration of all creation to come one day:
“Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring” (“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”).
The holiday season can be especially hard for those who are grieving estranged or lost loved ones. Years ago, an immediate family member passed away about one week before Christmas, which sometimes makes it a heavy time of year. There are a couple of practices and traditions that help me with processing my grief and cultivating hope. First, I try to allow myself to fully feel my feelings of sadness. Sometimes what’s most helpful is to cry. Moving my body by simply walking or stretching can also help release emotions I may be unaware of beneath the surface. Second, we host a dinner in his honor each year. We gather as a family to eat his favourite foods and share memories of him. On the menu each year: spaghetti for dinner and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. My daughter was born just a few weeks after he passed, so they were not able to meet one another in person. One of the reasons I love this tradition is because it feels as if she knows him very well, despite not having met him.
Every year on Christmas morning, my in-laws place the extra leaves in the wooden oval dining room table to extend it as long as possible for breakfast. When they tell us, “Everyone is welcome,” it’s not a colloquialism, but a genuine invitation for those who would not have a place to go otherwise. It’s a mix of old friends, new friends, students, newcomers, and people who don’t have family in the city. The table always seems to magically fit the number of attendees, even if we are squished shoulder-to-shoulder.
The only request is that my mother-in-law knows who’s attending a few days in advance so she can get each person a chocolate letter representing their first name—a Dutch tradition. Every year, I watch first-timers light up in delight to receive a gift that shows, “We know your name and are glad you’re here.” When the feast is over and we’ve exchanged our small offerings, we bring out a homemade chocolate cake with candles and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus (it is his birthday, after all.)
These are the traditions and images that come to mind when I hear Matt Maher’s song, “Hope for Everyone,” and when I think about the hope that Jesus brought to earth. Not “hope-for-tight-knit-pre-existing-familial-groups.” But hope, delight, celebration, and good food for all of us, however we find ourselves on Christmas day.
I love experiencing a live Christmas concert in order to connect to the anticipation of the Christmas season. I’ll often go to several in the lead up to December 25th, including my church’s, my friends’ churches’, and others in the city. There’s just something about the warmth of dozens of voices joined together in chorus. I love the joy (and often laughter) in the room as the children perform a song like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or act out the nativity scene.
Even if you or I are not feeling particularly festive at the time, or if we’re carrying something heavy, our voices are so much stronger together than they are individually. This tradition signifies to me that Christmas is coming, and with it, I’m reminded of the hope that Jesus brings whether we’re currently flourishing or languishing.
When I tell people that we typically leave our Christmas tree up until February, they’re often surprised. I think most assume that we just really love Christmas, which is true. But for my family, the Christmas tree represents something more than holiday decor: it represents light. Due to SAD (seasonal affective disorder), the long months between November and April can be particularly hard and heavy in my household. Taking vitamin D, spending time outdoors, and making the most of windows and lamps are all important ways that we care for our mental health and remind ourselves that brighter, sunnier days are ahead. But each night that the Christmas tree remains up is a night that we can soak in a little extra light. As I plug in the strands of lights and watch them wink on, I’m reminded of the description of Jesus that opens the Gospel of John: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).
In the heart of my grandparents’ home, Christmas held a special place each year, with the gathering of our large family from both near and far to eat, listen to music, and catch up on anything and everything. After my grandad’s passing, the festive gatherings felt different—a heartbreaking reminder of his absence. Yet, akin to the constant presence of Christ, my grandad’s spirit continues on.
I find that in moments of grief, we collectively find solace in the assurance that we are never really alone. Jesus, who vowed, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5), becomes our source of both comfort and hope. This promise comforts us like a big warm hug, especially during the Christmas season, when the memories of Grandad evoke both joy and longing.
Despite the physical void, we have a continued hope in Jesus—the one who brings together our cherished recollections, helping us create a library of endless love and connection even when it’s hard.
It’s a tradition in many churches to hold a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, and this is one of my favourite practices of the season. The lights go dim and one candle begins lighting all of the rest. Often, I feel that my hope is like a flickering candle—it would be easy for it to be put out. But as each candle in the room lights another, I’m reminded that even if our hope feels small, it lights the darkness. The lighting of candles is also a picture to me that if my hope is fading, my community can carry hope for me—and even hope that has been extinguished can be relit. When it feels like I’m in the darkness, I’m reminded that that’s exactly where Jesus comes to meet us:
“We are waiting on the promise,
For the One who lights the darkness,
Bending low to be among us” (“Hope for Everyone,” Matt Maher).
For more self-care ideas from us, check out these posts from the previous three years.