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ITALY EXPLAINED

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

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 of the Immaculate Conception: Why is Italy on holiday today?
Prayers at the statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

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.

READ ALSO: How to celebrate Christmas like an Italian

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.

READ ALSO: The Italian holiday calendar for 2021

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.

READ ALSO: The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast

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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ITALY EXPLAINED

Why are Italians ranked among the ‘unhappiest in Europe’?

Despite the romantic image portrayed of Italians living 'la dolce vita', one study has ranked the country as among the unhappiest in Europe. Here's the data behind the discontent.

Why are Italians ranked among the 'unhappiest in Europe'?

Italy’s population has placed among the least content in Europe, according to a new study by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Happiness can be a woolly concept and hard to define, but the 2022 World Happiness Report has attempted to do that in a global survey of almost 150 countries.

Italy ranked 31st worldwide, faring well on a worldwide scale, but in Europe it lagged way behind some of its neighbours – who not only ranked highly in Europe but globally too. Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland took the four top spots globally.

In Europe, Italy also placed behind France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and slightly behind Spain and Romania.

Why were Italians ranked as being unhappy?

Based on scores over the period 2019-2021, the study took into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which may go some way to explaining Italy’s poor happiness index as it bore the brunt of the first waves of coronavirus infection in Europe in 2020.

Of course, there will be individual variations and happiness is difficult to scientifically define or measure.

Researchers used the following seven categories to assess each country’s happiness level:

  • Social support
  • Life expectancy
  • Freedom to make life choices
  • Generosity
  • GDP per capita
  • Perceptions of corruption
  • Positive and negative affects – dystopia (evaluating how much better life is in a given country in comparison to ones with bad living conditions).

“Our measurement of subjective well-being continues to rely on three main indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions,” the report said.

“Happiness rankings are based on life evaluations as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives.”

Italy scored quite well in terms of its GDP, social support and healthy life expectancy, but respondents expressed a much lower value of freedom to make life choices compared to its European neighbours. Italians didn’t fare so well in dystopia either.

The report highlighted how Italy’s anxiety and sadness grew in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, based on social media analysis.

The Covid-19 pandemic could go some way to explaining Italy’s poor happiness ranking. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Five weeks after the outbreak of Covid, Italy showed the highest levels of anxiety globally. Levels of sadness grew too.

“On average, sadness reached its highest level three weeks after the outbreak, and remained stable for the following two weeks. The gradual increase of sadness terms occurred a while after stringency of social distancing measures increased, and remained high about two weeks later,” the report stated.

READ ALSO: Twelve statistics that show how the pandemic has hit Italy’s quality of life

Positive emotions also dropped in Italy as public health measures became stricter, the report noted.

However, throughout the turmoil, Italy ranked highly for supporting and taking care of each other – it was in fact the nationality least likely to simply take care of themselves.

Italy has consistently ranked poorly for perception of corruption: though there have been steady improvements over the past decade, it continues to rate as one of the most corrupt nations in Europe.

Despite the country’s overwhelmingly positive image abroad, Italy is in fact no stranger to poor rankings in various international comparisons on everything from corruption levels to English language proficiency.

You can find out more about those rankings below:

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