Catholic Activity: Immaculate Conception
Explanation of the history of the feast and customs related to this day by Father Weiser. This is solemnity, and a holyday of obligation. The Immaculate Conception is the patroness of the United States.
This is the only one of the Blessed Virgin's festivals that did not come to the Western Church by way of Rome but spread from the Byzantine province of southern Italy first into Normandy, thence to England, France, and Germany, until it was finally accepted into the Roman liturgy and approved for the whole Latin Church.
Like the other feasts of Mary, it had its origin in the Eastern Church. There it was introduced in various local churches during the eighth century. It bore the title the "Conception (Syllepsis) of the Mother of God." More frequently, however, it was called the "Conception of Saint Anne" (meaning that Saint Anne conceived Mary). The feast spread gradually over the Eastern Empire until Emperor Manuel Comnenus in 1166 recognized it as a public festival and prescribed it as a holiday for the entire Byzantine realm.
The conception of no other saint was ever commemorated by the Church. The reason why Mary was accorded this exceptional honor lies in the general belief of Christianity that she was free from original sin because of her dignity as mother of God. This belief is found in many testimonies from the earliest centuries. It is clearly stated in the famous Letter of the Priests and Deacons of Achaja on the martyrdom of Saint Andrew (first century). Many scholars do not consider this document genuine; however, it could not have been written later than the end of the fourth century, because its text is used in the earliest missals of the Gothic clergy. Thus the letter, whether genuine or not, by its very antiquity proves the belief of early Christians in the Immaculate Conception — in the fact that Mary was free from original sin.
From Constantinople this festival came to Naples in the ninth century, for Naples was then a part of the East Roman Empire. It was celebrated in Sicily, Naples, and lower Italy under the name "Conception of Saint Anne." When the Normans conquered those Byzantine provinces in the eleventh century, they adopted the feast and brought it back to Normandy, where it soon became established as a beloved annual celebration. Through Norman influence it came into England in the twelfth century and into various dioceses of France and Germany during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. The fact that the Normans had brought it into western Europe is indicated by the popular name which it bore in medieval times, "Feast of the Normans."
While the feast thus slowly spread in western Europe, Rome neither celebrated nor officially recommended it but allowed it to be introduced wherever the local church authorities wished to establish it. Saint Thomas Aquinas mentions this in his famous Summa Theologiae: "Although the Roman Church does not celebrate it, she allows other churches to do so." It was precisely for this reason that many bishops and theologians opposed it as an "innovation." Its fate was also intimately connected with the theological disputations that went on for centuries among the learned as to whether Mary was entirely free from original sin even "at the first moment" of her conception.
Meanwhile, the observance of the feast proceeded on its victorious course. The Franciscans made themselves fervent promoters of its celebration. They were soon joined by the Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carmelites In the religious houses of these orders, both in Rome and elsewhere, the feast was annually kept with great solemnity. By the end of the fourteenth century it was well established in most European countries.
Finally, in 1477, Pope Sixtus IV officially acknowledged the feast and allowed its celebration in the whole Church without, however, commanding it. It was not until the eighteenth century that Pope Clement XI (1721) prescribed it as an annual feast to be celebrated on December 8 (but not yet as a holyday of obligation). In Spain, though, it has been kept as a public holyday since 1644.
The festival obtained its present high rank in 1854, when Pope Pius IX solemnly declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and at the same time raised its commemoration to the status of a holyday of obligation for the universal Church. A new Mass and office were introduced, and the term "Immaculate Conception" was officially incorporated in the liturgical books. The churches of the Greek Rite have kept the festival as a prescribed holyday since 1166, though they still use the ancient title, "Conception of Saint Anne."
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception confirmed and clarified with finality the overwhelming conviction of the entire Christian world before the Reformation that Mary, through a special privilege of God, was free from original sin even at the first moment of her conception. The Pope's official and solemn declaration was received with immense joy by the faithful all over the world; and the great festival commemorating this sacred event is now annually observed as one of the two highest ranking feasts of Mary in all Catholic churches.
Because of its very recent establishment as a holyday of obligation, this feast has not developed any popular customs and traditions except in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, where it has been a great public feast day for the past three hundred years.
Since Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, is the primary patron of Spain, her feast is celebrated everywhere with great public solemnity. People prepare themselves by novenas and nocturnal vigils for the feast, solemn processions with the statue of the Immaculate are made after High Mass, and additional services are held in the afternoon of the holyday. In many places December 8 is also the day for the solemn first communion of children.
In the northern provinces of Spain it is the custom to decorate the balconies of the houses with flowers, carpets, and flags on the eve of the feast, and candles burn in the windows all through the night. In Seville, the famous "Dance of the Six" (Los Seises) is performed in the cathedral on the feast day and during the octave. Six boys, their heads covered according to special privilege, enact an ancient religious pageant before the Blessed Sacrament, dancing in the sanctuary and singing hymns in honor of the Immaculate Conception. This performance annually draws large crowds of devout natives and curious tourists.
All through Spain December 8 is the traditional day of great school celebrations. Alumni revisit their alma mater and spend the day in joyful reunion with their classmates and former teachers. In many countries of South America it is the day of commencement celebrations, since the long summer vacations start around the middle of December.
Mary Immaculate is also the patroness of the Spanish infantry and civil guard (state police). On December 8 in all towns and cities, troops attend Mass in a body. It is a colorful pageant to watch. Detachments in splendid uniforms march with military precision, brass bands play ancient, stirring music, and the picture of the Immaculate Conception on each regimental flag is held aloft.
Finally, there is the interesting fact that our modern custom of an annual "Mothers' Day" has been associated in Spain with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. All over Spain December 8 is Mothers' Day, and thus the great feast of our Lady has also become an outstanding day of joyful family celebrations in honor of mothers everywhere in that country.
LITURGICAL PRAYER: O God who, through the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, didst prepare a worthy habitation for Thy Son: grant us, we pray, as by the foreseen death of Thy Son thou didst preserve her from all stain of sin, so we may be cleansed by her intercession and may come to Thee.
Activity Source: Holyday Book, The by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., New York, 1956