Holiday Traditions and Family Bonds

December 2010

Last month I attended my grandchildren’s primary school for the Veteran’s Day exercise. Seated before me on the floor were a couple of hundred boys and girls happily chattering with one another, surrounded by us veterans: largely fathers and grandfathers who lined the gymnasium walls. 

On the stage, the fifth grade chorus presented a program of patriotic songs, including the anthems of each of the armed services. I stood proudly as I heard the young voices singing the words of ‘Anchors Aweigh’ and ‘Semper Paratus’ (I served in both the Navy and Coast Guard); and then ate a cafeteria lunch with my grandsons Sam and Ben. It is hard to describe such an affirming experience as being among a gathering of parents and happy, joyful children; ‘Of Such is the Kingdom of Heaven’ had renewed new meaning for me. 

This holiday season, whatever our faith background, many of us will set aside time for renewal within our families. For some of us it is an easy task because our families have naturally evolved and deepened in their relationships. For others 'family' is an elusive ideal toward which we focus our energy during the waning days of the year. Either way, the excitement of little children brings a special joy to the occasion. When we make an effort to renew these relationships each holiday, we build particular bonds of love, which give value to our lives.

Their deep commitment to children and family is what first drew me to the people of Spain. Many years ago, when I stepped ashore for the first time, as a newlywed and a freshly ordained Navy chaplain, I was drawn to what I call the ‘heart of Spain.’ I recognized that the Spanish people cherish their children in a special way. Throughout their childhood the little boy or girl is showered with love within the family, and treasured by their neighbors. No one worries about ‘spoiling’ the child.

Over the past forty-five years among the Spanish people, I have grown to appreciate that the heart of Spain is enriched by daily encounters of affection expressed within the family and neighborhood. From a childhood immersed in virtually 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.

This national reverence of the family is graphically before your eyes during the Christmas season. Just about anywhere you look, you can see a Belén, (the Spanish word for Bethlehem), a crèche, or a manger scene depicting the holy family surrounded by barnyard animals, simple shepherds, angels and whatever other characters the individual family chooses to add to the scene. Some of the constructions become quite elaborate, as over the years children add a camel or two, or the wise men, or people of the village. 

A friend of mine named Miguel tells how in his extended family the children make quite a project assembling their family Belén which includes a shed to shelter the holy family, mountains and hills, wise men coming from afar. 

We are happy to be in the spacious house of my sister Carmen. She has eight very willing children that help with dinner, build a wonderful Belén, and both individually and as a chorus sing the most touching of religious carols. 

We form the Belén on a big table. It depicts the birth of Jesus: along with the Three Kings and a number of shepherds, sheep, donkeys, green-dyed sawdust and the inevitable “river” made of the “silver paper” that covered chocolate blocks. 

To me it is reminiscent of the care some fathers used to put into assembling elaborate electric train sets for their children -- another way to mark the holiday season.

I have been sifting through the emails and reflections that I have written to you, my La Tienda family, over the past several years. In the process, I have also gone through my 'virtual' box of snapshots. You know what I mean: in the 'olden days', it was that shoebox of random pictures taken over the years -- the ones you vowed that sometime you would get around to mounting in albums. The modern equivalent is the thousands of images stashed in 'My Pictures' or Picasa on the hard drive of your computer. 

The result of these months I have spent reflecting on the meaning of my forty-five years of travel among the people of Spain is a new book, The Heart of Spain: Families and Food, in which I give personal portraits of the many families I have met in Spain, and throughout I have liberally sprinkled my snapshots. I hope many of you might enjoy reading it. For some it will bring back memories of their heritage or the happy times they spent visiting this unique country. For others it will be a celebration of the best of Spain and her food, which occasionally graces your tables.

The book, and many of my reflections, is my way to encourage each one of us to take our family seriously. None of us comes from perfect families, for we are not perfect people. My childhood was particularly chaotic. Nevertheless, we can learn from the joy of the loving, trusting children who surround us during this blessed period of the year. 

May your holidays be a warm affirming time among those whom you love.

Su amigo,