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Take It Easy: Holiday Gifts for the Stressed

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Indian Springs in Calistoga boasts an Olympic sized hot mineral pool. (Photo: Indian Springs)


Let’s face it, 2016 has been a tough year. If your friends and family are anything like mine, they’ve been stressed out by the untimely deaths of David Bowie and Prince, the contentious election season, police brutality, a rise in hate crimes and ongoing social injustice. It can be totally overwhelming, and coming up with holiday gifts seems especially challenging this year.

Self-care is important of course, and those who are most vulnerable may need a gentle nudge to remember to take care of themselves. This holiday season perhaps the kindest thing to do is to not give our loved ones more stuff but to help them to take time out and relax.

Bellocq Tea Atelier
Bellocq Tea Atelier, based in Brooklyn, makes many appealing herbal blends. (Photo: Bellocq Tea Atelier)


For several years running, I’ve been gifting my close friends and family tea blends from Bellocq Tea Atelier. The Brooklyn-based company has seasonal offerings such as Bellocq Christmas (a black tea with cinnamon and rose petals) and Little Dickens (a rooibos blend with mint and chocolate.)

The herbal blends are a calming option, especially Le Hammeau, which includes soothing lemongrass, chamomile, and lavender. The packaging is very pretty — even the simple brown atelier bag with blue lettering and handwritten label is charming.

Another idea in this vein is taking your loved one to afternoon tea in San Francisco. The Fairmont, Palace, and Ritz-Carlton are the fancy options, while Lovejoy’s is a cozier and more offbeat choice.

San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker
San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is a perennial favorite for the holiday season. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)


The performing arts are a source of solace for many, myself included. There’s something transcendental about sitting in a huge hall and experiencing live music, dance, or theater. Why not take the family to San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker (Dec. 10 – 29) or head to San Francisco Symphony for A Charlie Brown Christmas (Dec. 21-24)? For those who want a less Christmasy time, there’s The Lion King, which goes until New Year’s Eve, or Shotgun Players’ Rep Fest, in which the audacious Berkeley-based theater company performs all five plays of its present season on consecutive nights, through Jan. 22.

You can also gift tickets to the people you love for shows happening months in the future. One of my standard gifts for a close friend is tickets for Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, as the company always comes to Cal Performances in the spring while on tour. Another idea is to try and score tickets to Hamilton, which comes to San Francisco in March. Though you’ll need quite a bit of luck, not to mention spare cash to make that happen.

Hero Yellow Fish
The Steinhart Aquarium, part of the California Academy of Sciences, can be a very calming spot. (Photo: Kathryn Whitney)

Aquarium Membership

One of the calmest places in all of San Francisco must be Cal Academy‘s Steinhart Aquarium during members-only hours on Sunday and Tuesday mornings. The Philippine Coral Reef is completely serene — you can just watch the jewel-like fish flit back and forth. I also love to space out in the tranquil Amazon Flooded Forest. The installation has a soothing effect on my toddler, who can sit surrounded by the “fish tunnel” as he calls it for a full hour.

A membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is also a fine option, especially if you live in the South Bay. Watching the undulating jellies is a good way to take a break and be in the moment. If you are further north, you can use the membership as an excuse for a weekend away.

Jordan's Kitchen
Jordan’s Kitchen holds popular cooking classes, including those for children, in San Francisco. (Photo: Jordan's Kitchen)

Cooking Classes

Cooking can be daunting for the uninitiated, and I would have never guessed in my single days, when my fridge only had beer and ketchup in it, that making your own meals can be quite meditative. Taking a cooking class can give those with less confidence in the kitchen that extra encouragement to create their own menus. What could be more in line with self-care than figuring out what goes into your own body?

It’s easy enough to give that special person a gift certificate for Jordan’s Kitchen in SOMA, which covers everything from knife skills to Thai cooking. The school also offers Valentine’s Day classes to share with a significant other or close friend.

Another option is Cozymeal, which features classes from both local and traveling chefs. This can also make a great activity for a group of friends, adding a social component to the gift. Sometimes spending time together is a gift unto itself.

EarthBody Day Spa
EarthBody is an organic day spa in Hayes Valley with an ayurvedic bent. (Photo: EarthBody)

Spa Treatments

A trip to the spa is the perfect way to reduce stress, and a gift certificate provides an easy step towards taking care of one’s self. I like EarthBody Day Spa, which is an oasis of stillness in bustling Hayes Valley. Treatments include massages and facials using handcrafted organic products with a nod to ayurvedic traditions. Others swear by Korean style spas like Imperial Day Spa in Japantown, which is known for its scrubs and acupressure massages.

Another option is making this gift an escape to nearby Napa for a day at one of the region’s fancy hotel spas. I’ve taken family members to Indian Springs in Calistoga, which has mud and mineral baths and some seriously intense deep tissue massages on offer. You can spend the rest of your time in their Olympic-sized mineral pool, which is a toasty 82–102 degrees.


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