If, like me, you grew up in the UK you will have been seeing mince pies, Christmas puddings and tinsel in the shops since you got back from your summer holidays! And the US has been Christmas shopping since Thanksgiving. But here in Italy the Christmas season only really begins in earnest on December 8th with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The Immacolata is a national holiday throughout Italy. Catholics are obliged to attend mass and many banks and businesses close in observance.
But this festival isn’t to celebrate the immaculate conception of Jesus: for a start, the maths doesn’t add up as its only 17 days to Christmas. (The Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord is celebrated on March 25th, nine months before Christmas.) Rather the holy day of 8th December is to commemorate the conception of Mary, daughter of Anne and mother of Jesus.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in its oldest form, goes back to the 7th century, when churches in the East began celebrating the Feast of the Conception of Saint Anne, the mother of Mary. The feast celebrates the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother St Anne and 9 months later, on September 8, the Church celebrates the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The idea of Mary’s freedom from original sin was a matter for discussion within the Catholic church for centuries until Pope Pius IX finally declared in 1854 that Mary was free from original sin from her conception. In other words God had sanctified Mary at the moment of her conception (in the knowledge that she would consent to bear Christ) rather than at baptism. Pope Francis has recently confirmed Catholic doctrine that God saw Mary as sinless from the very beginning, from her conception. Catholic faithful are thus required to contemplate the Immaculate Mother, Mary, on this day and to attend a special mass, usually in the morning.
In addition to celebrating mass in Church, celebrations in Rome also include the laying of floral wreaths in Piazza di Mignanelli, an extension of Piazza di Spagna, on the 12m high column of the Immaculate Conception or la Colonna della Immacolata. Dedicated in 1857, just 3 years after Pope Pius IX’s proclamation, the column was commissioned by Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies and designed by Luigi Poletti. It was hoped to help to heal the dispute between Napes and the Papal State and as commemoration of the Virgin Mary.
These days the Pope and Mayor of Rome generally attend the ceremony laying a wreath at the base of the column whilst the Vigili del Fuoco, the Italian Fire Brigade, place a wreath around the arm of the bronze statue of the Virgin Mary by Giuseppe Obici with the aid of a fire truck ladder. And in his second Immacolata blessing since taking office, Pope Francis today prayed that humanity would be free from every form of spiritual and material slavery.
Parades and feasts to the Blessed Virgin Mary are also held around the country. In the Abruzzo region, for example, the Immacolata is often celebrated with ceremonies centred around bonfires. According to tradition, fire symbolises the purification of the Virgin Mary freed from sin and bad luck and also represents fertility and love.
In Francavilla the town is lit up with lights in every neighbourhood whilst the faithful surround a bonfire with prayers, traditional songs and dances dedicated to the Madonna in a centuries-old night-time tradition. Its also a time to feast on fried sweets and savoury food including snails, cabbage and local seasonal vegetables.
Meanwhile in Atri and other towns, the vigil of the Immacolata covers 2 days and includes roasted chestnuts, hot wine and other local specialities. A torchlit procession of the fauns, a mythical wood-nymph of the forest, leads into the main square to light up the bonfire. The streets are filled with theatre, folklore, music and dancing before Mass is said and fireworks light up the sky. Today the custom is continued in Fossacesia, Ortona and the foothills of Guardiagrele although there are concerns that it should remain a holy festival rather than become commercialised.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Italy on the 8th December, you’ll also notice that banks, post offices, public offices and some shops are closed throughout the day, although many stores stay open for holiday shopping.
And so the countdown to Christmas has begun. The Immacolata is coming to a close this evening, my tiny Christmas tree is up and decorated and the shopping has begun in earnest. If you celebrate Christmas, I hope you have started your Christmas preparations too! Why not leave me a comment to tell me what opens your Christmas season. Happy holidays!
Other Names for the Feast – Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary; Feast of the Conception of Saint Anne
Holy days of obligation are feast days on which Catholics are required to attend Mass and to avoid (to the extent that they are able) servile work. Other holy days of obligation are –
The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ
The Ascension of Our Lord
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
All Saints Day
The Solemnity of Immaculate Conception
The post Countdown to Christmas starts with L’Immacolata, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception first appeared on DreamDiscoverItalia