If you’ve ever spent any extended time in Italy, you’ll have noticed that there are lots of feste. Feste are holidays, some of them observed nationwide and some only taking place locally (usually to remember a community’s patron saint). The word festa (the singular form of feste) can also be translated as feast, festival, party, or celebration. Even Sunday is considered a giorno festivo; you’ll see “giorni festivi” on things like bus schedules to indicate timetables and opening hours for Sundays and holidays.
Not surprisingly, the month of December contains more holidays than any other month in Italy. Being a Catholic country, December 25 is, of course, a national holiday but so also is December 26, the Festa di Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day), which commemorates Christendom’s first martyr. Much like the tradition of Americans putting up Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving or the British decking the halls on the first day of Advent, Italians kick off the holidays on the Festa dell’Immacolata.
Festa dell’Immacolata: How Italy Kicks Off the Holiday Season on Dec 8
In Italy, the Christmas season officially begins on December 8 with a public holiday that celebrates a female, that feminine figure so important to the Catholic faith: Mary. The complete name of the festa is La Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione della Beata Virgine Maria — Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary — but it is more commonly referred to as the Festa dell’Immacolata or even more simply as l’Immacolata.
Whether you are religious or not, December 8 in Italy is a day of traditions and festivities as the whole nation kicks off the holiday season. But before we get into the hallmarks of the Festa dell’Immacolata, let’s set the record straight about what this holiday actually memorializes.
Festa dell’Immacolata: Not the Immaculate Conception You Thought It Was
It might come as a shock to learn that, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, the Immaculate Conception does not refer to Mary becoming miraculously pregnant with Jesus; it denotes how Mary herself came into the world, being absolved of original sin in a divine act of grace at the moment her mother became pregnant with her.
The subject of the Immaculate Conception was and still is a rather hotly debated topic in religious circles. Medieval theologians grappled with the subject, which became Roman Catholic dogma in 1854 when Pope Pius IX issued his Ineffabilis Deus decree, affirming Mary’s preservation from sin at the moment of conception. The evolution of the doctrine is an engrossing yarn that dates back to pretty much the dawn of Christianity. If you’d like to go down that rabbit hole (as did the author of this article), Wikipedia does a great job of explaining it all.
You might now be wondering, “If Jesus’ birth is not the Immaculate Conception, what the heck is it?” That little piece of supernatural business, in official Catholic terms, would be the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ.
Yup, somewhere along the line, we got our dogmatic wires crossed and the term “immaculate conception” became engrained in vernacular to signify Jesus being born of a virgin. But the fact is that the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary herself being conceived in the usual way but without the original sin inherited by the rest of us mere mortals, in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.
Festa dell’Immacolata: Traditions and Festivities
The Christmas holidays in Italy are a sparkling, festive time that lasts a whole month, from the Festa dell’Immacolata on December 8 to Epiphany on January 6. The country inaugurates the season with a variety of traditions that vary from region to region. While the particulars may differ from place to place, a special lunch or dinner where families gather is universal. (No surprise there!)
The most common tradition of Immacolata is parades and processions in which a statue of the Blessed Virgin is carried through town on a symbolic route. In the region of Abruzzo, ceremonies are held around a bonfire or amongst giant torches of bundled reeds called faugni, the blaze representing the purification that is so central to the occasion. Activities can comprise everything from prayers and mass to singing, dancing, and theatrical presentations. Some Immaculate Conception Day celebrations take the form of a sagra featuring such cold weather delights as chestnuts roasting on an open fire, hot spiced wine, and the local culinary specialties.
December 8 is the day when Italians decorate their homes and Christmas trees, and when folks assemble in public squares to ooh and aah at tree-lighting ceremonies. In the Cinque Terre, crowds gather in Manarola to witness the illumination of the world’s largest nativity scene. Occupying an entire hillside of the Ligurian cliffside village, the presepio features more than 250 figures and 15,000 lights.
In Rome, the Pope himself pays homage to Mary on this holy day by laying flowers at the base of the statue dedicated to her near the Spanish Steps. If you look up, you’ll notice that Rome’s firefighters have placed a wreath on her outstretched arm, some forty feet above street level.
Wherever you go in Italy on December 8, whether it’s a sprawling metropolis or a tiny hilltop village, you’ll find a distinctive festiveness in the air as the nation bids “Benvenuto!” to the most joyous time of the year.
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