What is The Feast of the Immaculate Conception: History, Rituals and Traditions and everything you need to know

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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?

Feast day December 8

This year, the traditional lunch at nonna‘s won’t be possible. But December 8th falls on a Tuesday, meaning we get a day off work. For many Italians this holiday marks the beginning of the Christmas period.

If you were given a saint’s name at Baptism, that saint is your patron saint. Countries also have patron saints. Who is the patron saint of the United States?

If you answered, “Mary, the mother of Jesus,” you are correct. In 1846, the bishops of the United States asked Mary to watch over our country and its people in a special way. They also chose one particular title and feast of Mary—her Immaculate Conception.

The title of the Immaculate Conception recognizes Mary’s privilege of coming into the world free from sin. Through the power of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, every human being can be freed from sin at Baptism. Through that same power, Mary was always free from sin, even from that very first moment of life.

On December 8, the Church celebrates this special privilege given to Mary. At the liturgy we thank God for all his blessings he has given to the people of our country. And we can thank Mary for watching over and protecting our people.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception - Wikipedia

Collect prayer from the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception:

O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin
prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son,
grant, we pray,
that as you preserved her from very stain
by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw
so through her intercession,
we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.
through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son
who lives and reigns with you in the
unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.

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.

Feast Day: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception | Grotto Network

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?

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

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 (Mary) 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 suares across the country, with parades, music and street entertainment.

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception - Saint Margaret Mary Catholic Church

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.

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.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception Rituals and Tradition

Many Christian communities around the world annually observe the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. This day is a holy day of obligation in which many Christians, particularly of the Catholic faith, attend special church services for this occasion.

Various images depicting the Immaculate Conception often feature the Virgin Mary as a young woman.©iStockphoto.com/Gijs van Ouwerkerk

What Do People Do in Feast of the Immaculate Conception?

Many Christians around the world, particularly those of the Catholic faith, mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in their diaries and calendars. Church services (or masses) to honor this observance are held on or around December 8. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a public holiday in some places, such as Guam and Malta, so many people in these areas have a day off work or school.

Public Life

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a public holiday in places such as:

  • East Timor.
  • Guam, which is an unincorporated territory of the United States.
  • Italy.
  • Malta.
  • Monaco.
  • Spain.

It is not a nationwide public holiday in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States (except Guam).

Background

Theological controversy surrounded the Feast of the Immaculate Conception for centuries. However popular celebration of this holiday dates back to at least the eighth century. The argument related to the meaning of the word “immaculate”, which in this context refers to the belief that Jesus’ mother Mary was conceived without original sin, according to Christian belief.

Many theologians throughout Christian history, including St Thomas Aquinas, questioned the Immaculate Conception. It remained open for debate for many years until Pope Pius IX proclaimed it to be an essential dogma in the Catholic Church on December 8, 1854. The written document on this is known as the Ineffabilis Deus. Since then, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the belief that Mary was born without sin and that God chose her to be Jesus’ mother.  Many Anglicans in the world also hold this belief.

Symbols

Various paintings, statues and other forms of artwork have been made depicting the Immaculate Conception. They usually show Mary as a young woman dressed in white and blue. She is often standing on a hill or raised area and has a halo of stars around her head. The pieces of art may also include images of clouds, golden lights, cherubs, lilies or roses. One well-known example associated with the Immaculate Conception is a statue known as Our Lady of Camarin (Santa Marian Kamalen), which was found on the shores of Merizo in Guam more than 300 years ago.

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Things You Need to Know About the Immaculate Conception

Dec. 8th is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. What is the Immaculate Conception and how do we celebrate it?
Dec. 8th is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. What is the Immaculate Conception and how do we celebrate it? (photo: Register Files)

This Saturday, December 8th, is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It celebrates an important point of Catholic teaching, and it is a holy day of obligation.

Here are 8 things you need to know about the teaching and the way we celebrate it.

1. Who does the Immaculate Conception refer to?

There’s a popular idea that it refers to Jesus’ conception by the Virgin Mary.

It doesn’t.

Instead, it refers to the special way in which the Virgin Mary herself was conceived.

This conception was not virginal. (That is, she had a human father as well as a human mother.) But it was special and unique in another way. . . .

2. What is the Immaculate Conception?

The beginning of Christmas

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way:

490 To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”.  In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.

491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. 

3. Does this mean Mary never sinned?

Yes. Because of the way redemption was applied to Mary at the moment of her conception, she not only was protected from contracting original sin but also personal sin. The Catechism explains:

493 The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia), and celebrate her as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature”.  By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long. “Let it be done to me according to your word. . .”

4. Does this mean Mary didn’t need Jesus to die on the Cross for her?

No. What we’ve already quoted states that Mary was immaculately conceived as part of her being “full of grace” and thus “redeemed from the moment of her conception” by “a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race.”

The Catechism goes on to state:

492 The “splendour of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”.  The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love”.

508 From among the descendants of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace”, Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (SC 103): from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.

5. How does this make Mary a parallel of Eve?

Adam and Eve were both created immaculate–without original sin or its stain. They fell from grace, and through them mankind was bound to sin.

Christ and Mary were also conceived immaculate. They remained faithful, and through them mankind was redeemed from sin.

Christ is thus the New Adam, and Mary the New Eve.

The Catechism notes:

494 . . . As St. Irenaeus says, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.” Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert. . .: “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.”  Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary “the Mother of the living” and frequently claim: “Death through Eve, life through Mary.”

6. How does this make Mary an icon of our own destiny?

Those who die in God’s friendship and thus go to heaven will be freed from all sin and stain of sin. We will thus all be rendered “immaculate” (Latin, immaculatus = “stainless”) if we remain faithful to God.

Even in this life, God purifies us and trains us in holiness and, if we die in his friendship but imperfectly purified, he will purify us in purgatory and render us immaculate.

By giving Mary this grace from the first moment of her conception, God showed us an image of our own destiny. He shows us that this is possible for humans by his grace.

John Paul II noted:

In contemplating this mystery in a Marian perspective, we can say that “Mary, at the side of her Son, is the most perfect image of freedom and of the liberation of humanity and of the universe. It is to her as Mother and Model that the Church must look in order to understand in its completeness the meaning of her own mission” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis conscientia, 22 March, 1986, n. 97; cf. Redemptoris Mater, n. 37).

Let us fix our gaze, then, on Mary, the icon of the pilgrim Church in the wilderness of history but on her way to the glorious destination of the heavenly Jerusalem, where she [the Church] will shine as the Bride of the Lamb, Christ the Lord

7. Was it necessary for God to make Mary immaculate at her conception so that she could be Jesus’ mother?

No. The Church only speaks of the Immaculate Conception as something that was “fitting,” something that made Mary a “fit habitation” (i.e., suitable dwelling) for the Son of God, not something that was necessary. Thus in preparing to define the dogma, Pope Pius IX stated:

And hence they [the Church Fathers] affirmed that the Blessed Virgin was, through grace, entirely free from every stain of sin, and from all corruption of body, soul and mind; that she was always united with God and joined to him by an eternal covenant; that she was never in darkness but always in light; and that, therefore, she was entirely a fit habitation for Christ, not because of the state of her body, but because of her original grace. . . .

For it was certainly not fitting that this vessel of election should be wounded by the common injuries, since she, differing so much from the others, had only nature in common with them, not sin. In fact, it was quite fitting that, as the Only-Begotten has a Father in heaven, whom the Seraphim extol as thrice holy, so he should have a Mother on earth who would never be without the splendor of holiness [Ineffabilis Deus].

8. How do we celebrate the Immaculate Conception today?

In the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, December 8th is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. In the United States and in a number of other countries, it is a holy day of obligation.

When December 8th falls on Saturday, the precept of attending Mass is still observed in the United States, even though it will mean going to Mass two days in a row (since every Sunday is also a holy day of obligation)

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 after December 8th – meaning many take an extended holiday, and everything (especially any thing administration-related) can noticeably slow down.

This isn’t always an issue in big cities. But if you’re in a small Italian town, you might want to get any paperwork done before this period – or otherwise 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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