A Spanish Christmas Celebration

December 2005

¡Felices Fiestas, mi amigos!

Eight years ago, Ruth and I booked plane tickets for the whole family to celebrate Christmas in a remote part of Spain. We drove directly to Granada, spent the night, and then headed southeast toward the area surrounding the mountain village of Cádiar deep in the Alpujarra region. It is a unique area, a natural link between the Mediterranean coast and Sierra Nevada, towered over by the highest peaks of Spain. It is there that the remnants of the Moors sequestered themselves after the fall of Granada in 1492; and it is not far from the dramatic mountain town of Trevélez where the local people cure a fabulous Jamón Serrano in the shadow of the highest mountain pass in the country. 

It was quite a different feeling than the commercial atmosphere of modern times. It seems that each year, about this time, I resolve to celebrate the Christmas season as people did in much simpler times. This year what first prompted these musings was when I heard the notes of 'Little Drummer Boy' wafting over the Musak system at Wal-Mart while people were sorting through Halloween costumes for their children! Then later I saw an advertising insert for a 'Pre-Day-After-Thanksgiving Day Sale' tucked into our local newspaper. 

Our trip was not under the most auspicious of circumstances - spontaneous decisions seldom are. 1997 turned out to be the year when much of Spain was experiencing drenching rains and dramatic mudslides of historic proportions. Nevertheless, undaunted by the rain, we navigated the narrow mountain roads in two cars -- each driver experiencing his own challenges as we snaked up the mountain range. The least of our worries were the few roadside guard-rails remaining which had been violently uprooted by the mud. As our other car was approaching its destination, a horse started galloping behind us down the road! 

It was dark by the time we reached the end of our journey. But for the brilliant full moon, our destination would have been difficult to spot -- because the road leading to the buildings had been washed out by a mud-slide. We stopped to ask directions from a man alongside the road. He hopped on our hood and guided us down the road. Quite an adventure - but with a happy conclusion: we were greeted by the innkeeper, who, with typical Spanish cordiality served us a simple and wholesome meal. 

After a good night's sleep we awakened to a sunny day in the clear mountain air. We were enjoying a respite from the stormy weather by climbing around on the rocks, when our host asked us if we would like him to prepare for us a meal to celebrate 'La Noche Buena' - Christmas Eve, which would be that evening. He noted that because of the weather there were few alternatives for us, so that he and his staff would be delighted to serve us. We gratefully accepted his generous proposal. 

So, the seven of us made our way to the village of Cádiar, stopping for some café con leche and churros before stopping at a little shop in town to pick out amusing little gifts for each other. We decided to simplify gift giving by drawing names: each person would buy only one gift, and that gift could not exceed 500 pesetas ($3.00). As we drove back to our settlement we noticed the village parish church - a late medieval structure - perfect for Midnight Mass.

We returned to one of the most memorable meals we have ever shared together as a family. Our host had set up for us a long refectory-type table in his cellar bodega. We were encompassed by barrels of wine and overhead by dozens of serrano hams hanging from the rafters. The wonderful aromas of the wine soaked oak barrels and the still-curing jamones were soon augmented by the sweet smell of platterfuls of roast legs of lamb - it seemed as if there was one for each one of us. The candle-lit table was laden with local vegetables and delicacies accompanied by wine of the region. The feast continued on with Christmas sweets and savories, reaching its conclusion with glasses of brandy. No honey coated spiral ham for us! We felt we were far away from modern America.

After the dinner, as we were opening our little gifts we noticed the wind gusting stronger, until finally we lost our electric power. But that did not stop us from getting ready to go to the ancient church in the village. As we were driving to town, our way illumined by the full moon, I romanticized how the lack of electricity would enhance our worship with the people of the village. It would be easy to imagine ourselves living in simpler times, centuries in the past. 

We arrived at the church only a minute or two before Midnight, relieved that we were not too late. But to our dismay we found a darkened church with the door locked! Just about then the local parish priest roared up in his small SEAT sedan (so much for medieval illusions!) He greeted us, unlocked the door, and then bustled about the building lighting several portable butane heaters (with the familiar orange 'butano' canisters) and rolling them to where the congregation would be sitting --saving one heater for himself by the altar. 

Without electricity the medieval church did have an added charm - the flickering candles, the shadowy arches, the crèche in the transept, the villagers filtering in throughout the liturgy at their own pace. By the time the Mass was over, and the villagers were filing by the manger scene venerating the Christ child the church was comfortably full.

What a blessed day it had been: our family together, the feast prepared by our inn-keeper and served by young women from the town, opening modest presents and then worshiping together. It had been all that I could hope for - mudslides and lost electricity notwithstanding. 

I know we cannot replicate this again. The logistics are more complicated: our family has grown larger, two more sons are married, there are three grandchildren and another on the way. But the commitment to greater simplicity during the holidays can be accomplished, and you do not have to go to Spain to do it. We discovered this truth a couple of years later here in Williamsburg, Virginia. We had a horrendous ice storm during the holidays, which knocked out our electricity and even our water for days. That Christmas Eve we tossed on a couple more logs, and sang some carols by the crackling fire. It was that simple.

For many people this is the favorite holiday of the year. No matter what is our personal faith, the universal icon of Mother and newborn Child reflects hope, and the joy of loving families. This is the season for each of us to renew personal ties and extend ourselves to others, so that the shortest days of the year are filled with light and joy.

Our family, and our 'extended' La Tienda family extend to you best wishes for a joyful time in this holiday season. We hope that, amidst all the distractions, you are able to focus on the purpose of all your preparations, sharing your love with others. 

¡Felices Fiestas, Feliz Navidad! 
Don & Ruth, Tim & Amy, Jonathan & Stacey, Chris & Rian