Friday, January 10, 2020

Tradition, Change, and Faith

It was a blur and whirl of a journey, as my extended family took the winter break to bumble about in the Spanish province of Andalucia.  I'd never been to Spain, and like all travels to places that are radically unfamiliar, it meant encountering a part of our world so different that it could almost be a different world altogether.

There's the language, of course, which meant I had to try to dredge up the memories of my two years of modestly successful college Spanish.  I did a lot of pointing at things on menus, and pleading the strange helplessness in other languages that's a defining characteristic of Americans.  But the differences went deeper.

The flora and fauna weren't familiar at all, the landscape was dotted with tall narrow pines that were so defined they seemed to have been sculpted.  Olive groves blanketed the countryside, neat geometric lines of little trees covering the hills, stretching sometimes to the horizon.  Mealtimes were different, as the Spanish eat later than we, with dinner running deep into the late evening.

The roads were filled with vehicles that even my car-geek self didn't immediately recognize.  I found myself driving most of the family down intimidatingly tiny narrow cobblestone roads in a French nine passenger diesel van with a manual transmission, which is about as far from American driving as one can get.

Even more peculiar was the way it was Christmas in Spain, but it also wasn't.  We'd flown in on the day after Christmas, and there were still strings of lights sparkling everywhere.  Christmas music was still playing in the stores...American pop-country Christmas music, as it happened.

This wasn't because they'd forgotten to stop, because Christmas in Spain wasn't finished on Christmas Day.  It had only just begun, as Spaniards geared up for the height of their gift giving season: January the 6th.  The festival of Epiphany is the big day for presents in Spain, which by tradition aren't given out by Santa.  They're given out by the tres reyes, the Three Kings.

This, truth be told, makes a whole bunch more sense than the weird way we do it. I mean, the Tres Reyes are the ones who had gifts, right? It's right there in Matthew, a whole lot closer to the story we hear in church on Christmas, which makes very little mention of the North Pole, jolly old elves, and Rudolph with his nose so bright.

Outside of the royal palace in Seville, I watched kids eagerly approach a nativity scene to talk with three ornately costumed kings, as a guitarist played softly in the background. It wasn't familiar, and yet it was, and I wondered at the differences, at the way faith plays out across different cultures.  Here was a variant telling of Christmas, just as filled with the spirit of that season.  It cast a new light on the way we celebrate, and on the role of faith in our culture.

All journeys into the new and unfamiliar open us to deepening and expanding our sense of who we are, and offer us the richness of becoming more than we now are.