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Stories About Spain

Comfort and Joy

Written by: Don Harris

little girls wearing flamenco dresses and dancingThe 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.
group of people standing in front of a feria caseta tent
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,


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"I have lived in Spain most of my life and I always try to explain to others how the cohesion of Spanish families helps them through the trials of life, gives them a loving base, and gives them joy. They seem truly happy together as they meet for the Sunday lunch, children and grandparents, and no one is left out, no one is boring, no one is gloomy, no one is too old or too young, they truly love being together naturally. They radiate joy. It´s so contagious! "
December 2011

"As you say, the opportunity to gather together as a family on a regular basis builds a strong foundation of love. Back in my childhood in New England,there remained a tradition of Sunday dinner with our grandparents and the extended family, which reinforced family bonds. The industrial revolution and, of course WWII, changed things. I think that with 21st-century technology, there is a new way to keep family ties alive through the Internet and Skype. It may not be the same but it is an opportunity to celebrate family ties. We have a son in Islamabad, Pakistan, yet we are able to talk with him almost every week. Thank you for your message, and may you have a warm and happy New Year! Saludos, Don "

"Once again Don has touched the heart and soul of a family Xmas. Merry Xmas to all the La Tienda family."
December 2011

"Dear Jim, Thank you for your kind words. May you and your family have a warm and blessed New Year. Abrazos, Don"

"I love to read your comments about Spain. I totally understand when you talk about their love for family and friends. Being Mexican myself, I have seen how the Spanish values and traditions have passed to our families, and it's something we are very proud about."
December 2011

"Dear Alba, Mexico is a wonderful country which I visited many times. You are right, that same loving spirit which was fostered y the Spanish culture so many years ago is embedded in the soul of México and her people. Abrazos Don"

"Thanks, Don, for the wonderful Christmas blog. Over several decades of close friendships with folks in Spain, my parents, husband, and I each experienced exactly what you've said. When I was teaching Spanish and chairing a language department, with your permission I often shared your writing--not yet called "blogs" in those years--with teachers in my department and hundreds of our students. Now in retirement, I continue to enjoy your descriptions of Spain in all its warmth and vivacity. An idealized version of Spanish reality? Perhaps...perhaps not. Everything you have written is very much at the core of what we've experienced through my first friendships in Spain dating back to 1970, a bit later adding church families in Málaga, and folks my parents or we met over the decades in small restaurants or stores. The closeness you've described does, truly, embrace from youngest to oldest in those families, and has blessed us by inclusion also. I so appreciate your own values, as well as those you bring to us from that land across the Ocean we hold so dear. Warmest wishes for a lovely Christmas to you and yours, trusting you experience many surprising blessings from God's hand in 2012. "
December 2011

"Dear Ellen, Thank you so much for your reflective letter. I am delighted that we have been working together through your teaching and my mom writing to spread the word about the core values of the Spanish culture. In an era of where 40% of the children in the United States are born out of wedlock (!). It is so important to reinforce that which we know is vital. As you say, some of what I write may appear to be romanticize fun just then again it really is not. Of course we are imperfect human beings, but those of us who have grown to values culture have been blessed – especially when we bring it to those who surround us. So as we live our lives, not only with our words but in our actions, we actually breeding hope to many people, often unbeknownst to ourselves. Thank you again for your thoughtful letter, and thank you for the many people you have touch with the love that you understand. May you and your loved ones have a loving and blessed new year. Tu amigo Don "

"Thanksgiving for the kind comments.. Most Spaniards (who are diverse in terms of language, local/ regional culture, etc.) have never set foot in a bullring (nor do we intend to!!!) or 'duende' ... A uniquely andalusian term. Please, try not to stereotype us that much, even if it's well intended. I don't assume all Americans wear cowboy boots and go to rodeos... Both Spain and the US are much, much richer (culturally, ideologically, etc,) and nuanced. And a significant portion of Spaniards are agnostic, by the way. "
December 2011

"Dear Rosa, Thank you for your note. I understand your impatience when people think that your country is nothing but flamenco dancers. It's like people from Spain who tell me that they have visited America when all they saw was Manhattan. You need to understand of course that Andalucia is quite an exotic place for Americans or Northern Europeans because of its 700 year exposure to the Muslim culture, which came from North Africa. It is a fascinating and beautiful place. On the other hand, so are the shores of Galicia, the rugged Picos de Europa, the Camino de Santiago, and one of my favorites: the little villages with their ancient Romanesque churches in the Pyrenees. It is hard to make any generalities about a country with a 17 autonomous regions, and many dialects and languages. All that being said, there are some characteristics which I find in common among the subcultures of Spain – especially their commitment to children and family. And even though the country is populated by many agnostics now, the bedrock of the culture is Christian and from this foundation a very strong family oriented culture arose. Su amigo, Don "

"I have always enjoyed reading your writeups. Many of the places you have written about have been most interesting to me and my spouse. My travel to Spain has been all of one afternoon almost half a century ago in Rota. My spouse, who is of Spanish descent, has spent about a week in Madrid, also almost half a century ago. One of these days, soon I hope,we hope to get to the town of Reus, where some of Rius family originate, we believe. Not sure about the Farina side of the house. We do know the Ferreira side is Portuguese. Mayhap when we visit in Fredericksburg we might get a chance to visit you enerprize. Meantime, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>"
December 2011

"Dear Patrick, Thanks for your note. I am pleased that you have been reading my write-ups over the years. (I have compiled many them in a book name Heart of Spain You were only in Rota for a few hours ? Were you aboard a ship or a military airplane? I strongly urge you to return, even if it is just for a few days -- but of course you know lots about Spain because you married into the culture. Where was your wife born, near Reus?. Does she have contact with her brothers and sisters there? I think you all with enjoy a trip back to Spain, 50 years is a long time to be away. Nowadays, the roads are super throughout Spain, the food is always great and it's fun to renew old ties – as faint as they might be. I hope you consider a trip to Williamsburg, where our retail store is located. It is in an old building which used to be a potters studio -- only 2 miles from Colonial Williamsburg on Jamestown Road. I would enjoy meeting you. Happy New Year to you and all whom you love. Su Amigo Don "

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Consuelo y Alegría

little girls wearing flamenco dresses and dancingLa esencia de estas fiestas es la celebración del cariño especialmente de la familia. Es tiempo para los niños y de disfrutar de su entusiasmo y capacidad para maravillarse. ¡Qué divertido es estar con ellos mientras abren con tanta ilusión sus regalos! No son tanto esos regalos como los momentos compartidos los que permanecen en nuestra memoria con la felicidad que ellos conllevan.

Existe una dimensión añadida para el cristiano, y ésta es la convicción de que Dios vino a vivir entre nosotros -- como niño. La imagen de María y Jesús contiene un significado profundamente emotivo más allá de las interpretaciones teológicas. Lo que es más, se trata del mismo vínculo familiar que llena los ocho días de Hanukah, o cualquier reunión familiar en la que el amor es compartido. Al menos en mi opinión, nuestra capacidad de amar es un don de Dios.

He tenido el privilegio de conocer a muchas familias en mi recorrer por los caminos de España, y a lo largo de los años, he ido plasmando algunas de mis impresiones sobre los corazones de este pueblo al que llamamos españoles. Me gustaría compartir con Uds. parte de lo que he escrito sobre ellos, porque estoy convencido de corazón de que su forma de vida nos enseña a los que buscamos alimentar la llama del amor familiar en nuestro corazón cómo vivir las fiestas y otras ocasiones.

"¿Qué hay en el corazón de España? La reunión familiar y la forma tan especial que tienen de amar a sus niños. Desde la más tierna infancia, los pequeños reciben grandes muestras de cariño de toda la familia y de sus conocidos. No se teme 'malcriar' a los niños.

El corazón de España se alimenta de afectuosos encuentros cotidianos con la familia y los amigos. De un una niñez empapada de amor incondicional surge la avidez por establecer relaciones entre las personas y el deseo de mantener estas relaciones a través del contacto cotidiano. Cuando uno nace con este tipo de afirmación, se convierte en algo natural establecer una relación personal con amigos tanto como con extraños.
group of people standing in front of a feria caseta tent
La lealtad a familiares acaba pronto extendiéndose a todos con los que mantienen contacto. Los españoles se refieren a otras personas por su nombre de pila; al saludarse se abrazan incluso con extraños; cenan juntos; se sientan hombro con hombro en la plaza de toros. Es la confianza que proviene de la consideración por el otro, de la valoración del prójimo.

Huelga decir que la mía es una imagen idealizada; todos somos seres imperfectos afectados por las vicisitudes de la vida. Una vez dicho esto, son estos cimientos de cariño a través de una experiencia en común los que dotan a los españoles de una cierta dignidad y gracia y del deseo de ofrecer su hospitalidad al resto del mundo. La suya no es una sociedad cerrada en la que el valor de la privacidad es elevado; siempre ha sido una forma de vida cálida y acogedora...

Tíos y tías, primos, primas, abuelos y vecinos… se ven varias veces semanalmente comprando en el mercado o tomando unas tapas en el bar de la esquina. Las familias a menudo regentan negocios, trabajan juntas en el campo o conforman la tripulación de un pesquero.
Estas relaciones resisten el paso del tiempo y maduran a través de los años. Incluso hoy en día, ésta es la forma de vida acostumbrada en muchos lugares de España.

No hay nada que pueda garantizar más nuestra paz espiritual que la presencia del amor y el calor humano. Nunca podremos reemplazar las vivencias en primera persona de hospitalidad- ¿y por qué deberíamos reemplazarlas? Es este duende—expresión española tan difícil de definir que lleva connotaciones de emoción y autenticidad—ése es el corazón de España y también su regalo al mundo."

Creo que muchos de Uds. disfrutarían al conocer a algunos de los amigos de los que hablo — Lola, Fermín, Carmen, Miguel y Jorge. Ellos elaboran queso, recolectan azafrán, crian vino de Jerez, curan jamón, hacen sopas caseras. Pueden conocerlos entre las páginas de mi libro The Heart of Spain: Families and Food. No se trata tanto de una aventura comercial como de una manera de transmitir su cálida y amable cultura.

¡Qué viva la familia española!

Feliz Navidad,


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