The public holiday on the 8th of December, known as the ‘Immacolata’ creates some confusion, among the less devout, about what is being celebrated other than, clearly, the start of the Christmas festivities (seeMore than 12 days of Christmas in Puglia).
I imagined, wrongly, that it was the immaculate conception of Jesus until I realised that, miracles notwithstanding, the dates were wrong! I was then told that it was the immaculate conception of Mary herself, and in fact, in early Eastern European Christianity, the feast of Saint Anna, Mary’s mother was celebrated on the 9th of December, to mark the conception of Mary. In early versions of the story this conception was also ‘immaculate/without sin/sex’ in that Anna had previously been unable to conceive and her husband was away praying in the desert at the time of conception. Just to confuse matters further, Orthodox Christians still celebrate St Anna on the 9th as marking the conception of Mary but no longer believe it was ‘immaculate’ (partly because the concept of original sin doesn’t figure). Meanwhile, since Pope Pio IX decided and proclaimed so, on the 8th of December 1854, Catholics believe that Mary from the moment of conception was, unlike any other human, free from ‘original sin’ and was therefore ‘immaculate’ although conceived in the normal way. And her conception is celebrated on the 8th of December. Still confused? Surely not!
The date chosen is apparently 9 months before Mary’s birthday and around the same date as an Ancient Egyptian festival celebrating the goddess Neith and a Greek one celebrating Astrea. All this certainty as to dates is a bit baffling given the changes in calendars across centuries and cultures but there you are. .
The one thing that is clear is that, in Italy, Christmas begins on the 8th. Traditionally, people decorate their Christmas trees, and every town sparkles with Christmas lights and decorations. The mood is festive, even more so when the Immacolata, a public holiday, falls somewhere near a weekend, allowing people to take the ‘Ponte’ or long weekend so beloved by all.
Puglia is good at preserving its traditions, and towns have different celebrations, often involving fire in some shape or form such as large bonfires. In Nardò where I now live there is the ‘Fiaccolata del Immacolata’. A fiaccolata is a torch lit procession and adults with flaming torches, and children with balloons meet outside the historic centre and then process into the main square singing. Usually the Mayor then makes a speech consigning the town into the Madonna’s care and then the Bishop blesses the statue of the Madonna which stands in the centre of the square atop a tall obelisk. Then the fun begins. The square by now is usually packed (and I have usually taken up a good vantage point ahead of time with friends and a drink!) Before the crowds assemble a fire engine parks by the statue and after the blessing, in triple slow motion, a fireman ascends to the statue to lay flowers at the Madonna’s feet. This achieved, there are fireworks and people let off fire lanterns.
Piazza Salandra itself is always beautiful, but the contrast between the fireworks and lanterns, inky sky and pale golden stone buildings makes it even more so. There is also something quite moving, whatever your beliefs, in a large crowd gathered and all focused on one, positive, thing.
If you want to join us there is a special long weekend organised, combining grandstand seats for the ceremony along with Christmas shopping trips to the artisan boutiques in nearby Lecce, wine and local produce tasting sessions and opportunities to do lots of ‘foodie’ shopping. Lots of delicious meals as well, of course. The weekend is based at the gorgeous Palazzo Cairney with overspill accommodation nearby. Price 196 pp for two nights including half board, wine and product tasting and shopping trips. 3 nights cost See https://palazzocairney.com/special-events/ for details.