Immacolata (Immaculate Conception), December 8th

Instituted in 1854, the Immaculate Conception is a Catholic dogma so baffling it was a source of conflict for centuries before it was finally decided upon by pope Pius IX. It dictates that the mother of Jesus couldn’t be impure, thus she was the one and only human being born free of the Original Sin, hence “immaculately” conceived. The concept didn’t go well with a large part of the Vatican hierarchies and among the laypeople – so much that for a while it even became an open theme in religious art. The Piero di Cosimo painting in the Uffizi museum of Firenze, in example, clearly show the two factions fighting over the Madonna figure.

December 8th, the official date for celebrating this dogma, was a low-key affair until 1958, when pope John XXIII decided to honor the day by personally bringing a basket of white roses before a statue of the Virgin Mary in piazza Mignanelli in Rome, next to the world-famous piazza di Spagna. His unusual public appearance was followed by communal praying and a visit to the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica – a tradition maintained by his followers. This still constitutes a huge event in Rome, with tens of thousands of participants. To most Italians, however, l’Immacolata is a much more secular occasion. In fact, it is a bank holiday marking the beginning of the Christmas holidays: shops are open, so countless people siege them for a last-minute search for the perfect present. This doesn’t mean however that it is not celebrated in some ways. Most families still practice some form of ritual connected to ancient Italian traditions. Sicily in particular has always been the heart of the Immacolata celebration (since 1323 at the least). Whereas in the countryside bonfires are still common, as a remote echo of the feste dei fauni (fauns festivals) of pre-Roman times, the most common ritual is fasting – albeit in a very uncommon way. As a matter of fact, the fast apparently only applies to meat. Therefore Italian families have big family meals rife with delicacies – meatless, yet definitely hearty. Each region has its typical dishes for this occasion, once again with Sicily taking the crown with its buccellato, a shortbread cake containing dried figs, raisin, almonds and orange rinds.