Feast of the Immaculate Conception: Why is Italy on holiday today?

Feast of the Immaculate Conception: Why is Italy on holiday today?
Prayers at the statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
You may know that December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and that it's a public holiday. But what is it all about?

This year, the traditional big family lunch might have to be on a smaller scale than usual. But December 8th falls on a Wednesday, meaning we get a day off work. For many Italians this holiday marks the beginning of the Christmas period.

What are we celebrating?

This Catholic feast day marks the Immaculate Conception, which many may imagine was Mary’s conception of Jesus.

In fact, it actually marks the conception of Mary herself. Her mother Saint Anne became pregnant in the usual, biological way, Catholics believe, but the conception was ‘immaculate’ because God intervened, absolving Mary of original sin.

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According to Catholic dogma, all humans are born with original sin, which is why babies are baptized shortly after birth to make them “worthy” of entry to Heaven. But Mary was never tainted by original sin, kept “immaculate” from the moment of her conception because God knew she would one day give birth to Jesus Christ.

While the event has been marked since as early is the seventh century, December 8th was first officially declared a holy day by the Vatican in 1854 by Pope Pius IX.

How is it marked?

This year, of course, due to the coronavirus restrictions the usual gatherings and public events won’t be possible.

Special masses can however go ahead, with safety precuations in place.

Usually on December 8th, the pope lays a wreath at the foot of the 12-metre tall Colonna della Immacolata, by the statue of the Madonna in Rome’s Piazza Mignanelli, while members of the Italian fire service place another floral wreath on the arm of the statue.

For Italians it also means a day off work (if the holiday falls on a weekday) and getting together for a big family lunch.

There are plenty of other celebrations creating a festive atmosphere in streets and squares across the country, with parades, music and street entertainment.

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Festive markets in Mantova on December 8th, 2018. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local.

In Abruzzo it’s traditional to celebrate around a bonfire, with fire symbolizing purity, fertility and love. Other places hold torchlit processions and firework displays.

Does this mean everything will be closed?

Because the holiday falls during Advent, many shops in bigger towns stay open to allow for Christmas shopping.

However, make sure you check transport before trying to go anywhere, as most bus and rail routes will be running on a limited service.

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As usual, government offices, post offices, banks and schools are closed for the public holiday, so it’s not a good time to catch up on admin.

If it falls on a weekend, or you’ve got a day off work, the best thing to do is make like the Italians, and spend the day eating a big meal and enjoying the festive displays.

The beginning of Christmas

You may also notice that many towns put up their Christmas trees and other decorations in the days around December 8th.

Unofficially for many people in Italy the Christmas holidays begin on December 8th meaning many take an extended holiday, and everything (especially anything administration-related) noticeably slows down from this point on.

Especially if you’re in a smaller Italian town, you might want to get any paperwork done before this period – or otherwise you may have to wait until the Italian Christmas period ends, after January 6th.

This is an updated version of an article originally published in 2018.


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