Comfort and Joy

Don Harris | December 2011

The essence of the holidays is the celebration of loving relationships, especially within the family. It is the time for children with their joy and enthusiasm and their sense of wonder. What fun it is to be with them as they open their presents with such gusto! It is not the gifts so much as the gathering that remains in our memories with the happiness it engenders.

There is an added dimension for the Christian, and that is the belief that God came to live with us – as a child. The image of Mary and Jesus has deep emotional meaning beyond any theological interpretation. Moreover, it is the same bond of family that saturates the eight days of Chanukah, or, for that matter, any family gathering where love is shared. For at least in my understanding, our ability to love is a gift from God.

I have had the privilege of getting to know many families as I have traveled the byways of Spain, and over the years I have written down some impressions of the heart of these unique group of people we call Spaniards. I would like to share with you a little of what I have written about them, for in my heart I believe their way of life is a model as to how we all can live during the holidays and then beyond, as we seek to fan the flame of family love in our hearts: 

What is at the heart of Spain? It is being together as a family, and the special way in which they cherish their children. This begins with the experience of young childhood where the little boy or girl is showered with love within the family, and treasured by the neighborhood. There is no fear of 'spoiling' the child.

The heart of Spain is fostered by daily encounters of affection expressed within the family and neighborhood. From a childhood immersed in seemingly unconditional love, comes an eagerness to engage in personal interchange, and a willingness to maintain these personal relationships through frequent contact. When one begins life with this kind of affirmation, it becomes second nature to engage friend and stranger alike with a kind of personal intimacy. 

The companionship of their family soon extends to all those whom they touch. Spaniards refer to people by their given name; in greeting they embrace even the stranger; they acknowledge fellow diners; they sit shoulder to shoulder in the bullring. It is an intimacy that comes from treating one another as sacred, as people of worth. 

Needless to say, mine is an idealized image; we are all flawed human beings affected by the vicissitudes of life. That being said, it is this foundation of caring through the communal experience that endows Spaniards with a certain dignity and grace, and a willingness to engage the world with hospitality. Theirs is not a closed society where the value of privacy is elevated; it has always been a way of life that is warm and welcoming.

Uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents are next-door neighbors. They see each other several times a week while shopping at the local market or at their favorite tapas bar. Members of the family often operate local shops, work together in the fields, or man the fishing boats. These kinds of relationships stand the test of time, and mature throughout the years of one’s life. Even today, this is the customary way of life throughout much of Spain.

There is nothing that can assure our spiritual well being more than a loving, caring human presence. We can never replace the experience of hospitality conveyed face to face – and why should we? It is this duende – a difficult to define Spanish phrase that connotes emotion and authenticity – that is the heart of Spain. It is also her gift to the world.

I think many of you would enjoy getting to know some of my friends I write about – Lola, Fermín, Carmen, Miguel and Jorge. They are churning cheese, harvesting saffron, blending sherry, aging hams, making homemade soups. You can meet them in the pages of my book, The Heart of Spain: Families and Food. It is not a commercial venture so much as a way to spread the word about such a warm and caring culture. 

¡Que viva la familia Española! 

Feliz Navidad,