Catholic Activity: The Feast of the Assumption Customs and Traditions
Father Francis Weiser describes the history and traditions of the feast of the Assumption.
This feast, celebrated on August 15, is the oldest of all the festivals of Mary. It has not only kept its character as a holyday of obligation up to now but has been brought into even greater significance through the solemn declaration in 1950 of the dogma of Mary's assumption into Heaven.
The first annual feast day of Mary seems to have been celebrated in Palestine. In a eulogy on Saint Theodosius (529), Bishop Theodore of Petra wrote that the monks of Palestine held every year with great solemnity and devotion a memorial feast of the Blessed Virgin (Theotokou Mneme: the Memory of the Mother of God). Neither the occasion nor the date of this "memory" is mentioned, but there is little doubt that it was a celebration on the anniversary of her "falling asleep." According to ancient tradition the date was August 15.
This annual commemoration of Mary soon spread throughout the whole Eastern Church. Emperor Mauritius in 602 confirmed the date and established the feast as a public holiday for his entire realm. Its official title was the "Falling Asleep of the Mother of God" (Koinesis Theotokou). Almost immediately Rome accepted this festival and celebrated it in the seventh century under the same title (Dormitio Beatae Mariae Virginis).
With the memory of Mary's "falling asleep," however, there was everywhere connected the ancient traditional belief that her body did not decay but soon after the burial was united again with her soul by the miraculous action of Divine Omnipotence, and was taken up to Heaven. In the Latin Church this general belief brought about a change in the title of the feast. Very soon, in the seventh and eighth centuries, it started to be called Assumptio (Taking Up).
The universal belief of Mary's assumption has been framed in ancient legends and stories which, though not strictly historical in themselves, confirm the underlying tradition. The most famous of these legends is quoted in an interpolated passage (added by an unknown author) in the sermons of Saint John Damascene (749). It tells how the East Roman Emperor Marcian (457) and his wife, Pulcheria, asked the Bishop of Jerusalem at the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, to have the relics of the Blessed Virgin brought to Constantinople. The Bishop is said to have answered, "Mary died in the presence of the Apostles; but her tomb, when opened later on the request of Saint Thomas, was found empty, and thus the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to Heaven."51
Although the above legend was not actually told by Saint John Damascene, in one of his sermons he clearly expressed the same general belief of all Christianity:
Your sacred and happy soul, as nature will have it, was separated in death from your most blessed and immaculate body; and although the body was duly interred, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay....Your most pure and sinless body was not left on earth but you were transferred to your heavenly throne, O Lady, Queen, and Mother of God in truth."52
It is this fact of Mary's assumption into Heaven that has been formally celebrated from the beginning of the Middle Ages in all Christian countries up to the Reformation, and in the Catholic Church up to this day. The other two events connected with it, her "falling asleep" and her coronation in Heaven, are included in the feast but not expressly commemorated. In South America, however, a special feast of Mary's coronation is held annually on August 18.
When Pope Pius XII, on November 1, 1950, solemnly announced the Assumption of Mary to be a dogma of the faith, he did not establish a new doctrine but merely confirmed the universal belief of early Christianity, declaring it to be revealed by God through the medium of Apostolic tradition. He also introduced a new Mass text which more clearly stresses the fact of the Assumption in its prayers and readings.
The feast was given a vigil and liturgical octave by Pope Leo IV in 874. The octave, however, was abolished in 1955, together with the octaves of all feasts except Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The Council of Mainz in 813 prescribed the celebration for the whole empire of the West as a public holyday. Soon after, the popes extended this obligation to the entire Latin Church.
In the Greek Rite the official title of the feast is still the ancient one (Falling Asleep): Koinesis Theotokou in Greek, Uspenije Marii in Slavonic. Most European nations have adopted the Latin term of Assumptio, like Assumption in English, Assunción in Spanish, Assomption in French. The German Mariä Himmelfahrt means "Mary's Going Up to Heaven," as does the South Slavic Usnesenje and the North Slavic Nanebovzatie. Among the Syrians and Chaldeans the feast is called 'id al-intiqal Marjam (The Being Transferred of Mary).
Among the Hungarians the Assumption is kept with special solemnity as a great national holiday. According to legend their first king, Saint Stephen (1038), offered the sacred royal crown to Mary, thereby choosing her as the heavenly Queen and Patroness of the whole country. Consequently, they call it the "Feast of Our Great Lady" (Nagyboldogasszonynap), and Mary is referred to as the "Great Lady of the Hungarians" (Magna Domina Hungarorum). They observe August 15 with unusual solemnities, pageants, parades, and universal rejoicing.
In France a traditional pageant used to be performed in many places on Assumption Day. Figures of angels descended within the church to a flowery "sepulchre" and reascended again with an image of the Blessed Virgin dazzlingly robed, while boys dressed as angels played with wooden mallets on a musical keyboard the tune of a popular Madonna hymn.
The Armenians list the Feast of the Assumption among the five supreme festivals (Daghavár) of the year. As such it is preceded by a whole week of fasting and consists of a three-day celebration of which the second day is the actual feast of obligation. It is also followed by a solemn liturgical octave.
In pre-Christian times the season from the middle of August to the middle of September was observed as a period of rejoicing and thanksgiving for the successful harvest of grains. Many symbolic rites were aimed toward assuring man of prosperous weather for the reaping of the fall fruits and for winter planting. Some elements of these ancient cults are now connected with the feast and season of the Assumption. All through the Middle Ages the days from August 15 to September 15 were called "Our Lady's Thirty Days" (Frauendreissiger) in the German-speaking sections of Europe. Many Assumption shrines even today show Mary clothed in a robe covered with ears of grain. These images (Maria im Gerteidekleid, Our Lady of Grains) are favored goals of pilgrimages during August.
Popular legends ascribe a character of blessing and goodness to "Our Lady's Thirty Days." Both animals and plants are said to lose their harmful traits. Poisonous snakes do not strike, poison plants are harmless, wild animals refrain from attacking humans. All food produced during this period is especially wholesome and good, and will remain fresh much longer than at other times of the year.
The fact that herbs picked in August were considered of great power in healing occasioned the medieval practice of the "Blessing of Herbs" on Assumption Day. The Church thus elevated a popular belief of pre-Christian times into an observance of religious import and gave it the character of a Christian rite of deep and appropriate meaning. In central Europe the feast itself was called "Our Lady's Herb Day" (Kräutertag in German, Matka Boska Zielna in Polish). In the Alpine provinces the blessing of herbs is still bestowed before the solemn service of the Assumption. The city of Wurzburg in Bavaria used to be a favored center of these blessings, and from this fact it seems to have received its very name in the twelfth century (Würz: spice herb).53 The Roman Ritual still provides an official blessing of herbs on Assumption Day which, among other prayers, contains the petition that God may bless the medicinal powers of these herbs and make them mercifully efficient against diseases and poisons in humans and domestic animals.54
The Eastern Rites have similar blessings. In fact, the Syrians celebrate a special feast of "Our Lady of Herbs" on May 15. Among the Armenians, the faithful bring the first grapes from their vineyards to church on Assumption Day to have them solemnly blessed by the priest. Before breakfast the father distributes them to his family. No one would dream of tasting the new harvest before consuming the first blessed grapes on Our Lady's Day.
In Sicily people keep a partial or total abstinence from fruit during the first two weeks of August (La Quindicina) in honor of the Blessed Virgin. On the feast day itself they have all kinds of fruit blessed in church and serve them at dinner. They also present each other with baskets of fruit on Assumption Day.
From early centuries the Feast of the Assumption was a day of great religious processions. This popular custom seems to have started with the ancient Roman practice, which Pope Sergius I (701) inaugurated, of having liturgical prayer-processions (litaniae) on the major feasts of Mary. In many places of central Europe, also in Spain, France, Italy, and South America, such processions are held. In Austria the faithful, led by the priest, walk through the fields and meadows imploring God's blessing upon the harvest with prayer and hymns.
In France, where Mary under the title of her Assumption is the primary patron of the country, her statue is carried in solemn procession through the cities and towns on August 15, with great splendor and pageantry, while church bells peal and the faithful sing hymns in Mary's honor.
The Italian people, too, are fond of solemn processions on August 15, a custom which is also practiced among the Italian-Americans in the United States. In the rural sections outside Rome the so-called "Bowing Procession" (L'Inchinata) is held, the statue of Mary being carried through the town (symbolizing her journey to Heaven). Under a gaily decorated arch of branches and flowers (representing the gate of Heaven) it is met by a statue of Christ. Both images are inclined toward each other three times as though they were solemnly bowing. Then "Christ" conducts his "mother" back to the parish church (symbolizing her entrance into eternal glory), where the ceremony is concluded with a service of solemn benediction.
In Sardinia the procession is called Candelieri because they carry seven immense candlesticks each supporting a torch of a hundred pounds of wax. The procession goes to the Church of the Assumption where the candles are placed beside Mary's shrine. The origin of the Candelieri dates back to the year 1580 when a deadly epidemic suddenly stopped on August 15 after the town had vowed to honor Mary by offering these candles every year.
It may be of interest to note that on the island of Sardinia, according to ancient tradition, all shrines of the Assumption picture Mary not as being assumed into Heaven but as reclining on her bed. Thus they perpetuate the original commemoration of the feast, the "falling asleep" of the Blessed Virgin.
Finally, there is the old and inspiring custom on August 15 of blessing the elements of nature which are the scene of man's labors and the source of human food. In all Christian countries before the Reformation the clergy used to bless the countryside, its farms, orchards, fields, and gardens. In the western sections of Austria the priests still perform the "Blessing of the Alps," including not only the mountains and meadows but also the farms.
In the Alpine sections of France the parish priests ride from pasture to pasture on Assumption Day or during the octave. Behind the priest on the horse sits an acolyte holding the holy water vessel. At every meadow the blessing is given to the animals which are gathered around a large cross decorated with branches and flowers.
In the Latin countries, especially in Portugal, the ocean and the fishermen's boats are blessed on the afternoon of Assumption Day. This custom has also come to the United States, where fishing fleets and ocean are now solemnly blessed in various coastal towns on August 15.
LITURGICAL PRAYER: Almighty and eternal God, who hast taken up into the glory of Heaven, with body and soul, the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of Thy Son: grant us, we pray, that we may always strive after heavenly things and thus merit to share in her glory.
51. S. Joannis Damasceni, Sermo II in Assumptione; PG, vol. XVIC, col. 749 ff.
52. Ibid.; PG, vol. XVIC, col. 715, 719.
53. Gugitz, Das Jahr und seine Feste, vol. II, p. 73.
54. Rituale Romanum, Benedictio Herbarum in Festo Nativitatis B. Mariae Virginis.
Activity Source: Holyday Book, The by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., New York, 1956