The 8th December is an important national holiday in Italy, it is the celebration of the “Immacolata Concezione”, the Immaculate Conception.
It is not the conception of Jesus, as most believe, but the conception of the Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. Unlike Mary, her mother became pregnant in the biological way but God decided to intervene to absolve Mary of original sin by virtue of the foreseen birth of her son Jesus Christ.
Catholics believe that all humans are born with original sin, and that is why babies are baptised shortly after their birth, to make them worthy to enter heaven. The Virgin Mary was never tainted by this sin, because God knew that she would one day give birth to Jesus Christ.
The Italians celebrated this day with bonfires, a rural tradition that eventually spread around the whole of Italy. The idea behind bonfires, came from the thought that bonfires would dispel the fear of winter and will give the earth fertility.
The 8th December also marks the Advent period, the main tradition of setting up the Presepio or Nativity and putting up the decorations, a tradition that remains to this day, in addition to the Christmas Tree.
December 8th was declared a National Holiday by the Kingdom of the Church in 1854, when Pope Pius IX confirmed it as a Catholic Dogma. After the declaration of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, a column was erected in Piazza Mignanelli, which is a Southwest extension of the Piazza di Spagna, the piazza at the base of the Spanish Steps.
The Column was designed by Luigi Poletti in 1857. The square marble base of the monument has statues of Moses, Isaiah, David and Ezekiel, each with a quote of a bible verse in Latin.
On top rises the 39 foot marble Corinthian column, which was sculptured in ancient Rome and discovered during the construction of the monastery Santa Maria della Concezione (which is very apt).
A bronze statue of the Virgin Mary stomping on a serpent, the symbol of original sin, tops the column.
Traditionally, in the mornings the city of Rome firefighters place a wreath on the arm of the Virgin Mary, with the help of the ladder on the fire engine! The firemen place a wreath asking the Virgin Mary to protect them as they work.
In the afternoon of 8th December the Pope makes his way through the crowds to offer a bouquet of flowers at the base of the column.
What happens if you are in Italy on a National Holiday?
There can be limited services on public transport and we recommend that you check timetables if you are going to be travelling. As usual, government offices, post offices, banks and schools will be closed.
What about shops? Many shops stay open to allow for Christmas shoppers. Be aware that the city centre will be packed especially in the afternoon!