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Today the 8th December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic Calendar. This in Rome is a great day, all the religious congregation will come to the Piazza Spagna at the foot of the famous stairs of the same name and say prayers at the great column surrounded by the 4 Jewish Prophets, Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Isiah and at the top of this ancient column taken from a great Roman temple from antiquity is the no less antique statue of Venus goddess of beauty and love re-shaped as the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven standing on a Crescent Moon.

At the appointed hour the Pope will travel from the Vatican to Piazza Spagna escorted by the Carabinieri, Italy’s National Police. He will come to say prayers on this day and bless the crowd and then he will give a giant wreath to the Vigili (Firemen) of Rome so that they can go up the column in a cherry picker to place the wreath on the arm of he Virgin.

Afterwards the Pope will enter the Embassy of Spain to the Holy See to have a drink with the Ambassador of His Most Catholic Majesty, King Felipe of Spain. The old Palace of the Embassy has been on that site for centuries, since the time before Columbus some 500 odd years.

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Here I am in 2009 at Piazza Spagna with the famous fountain The Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Ugly Boat). The fountain was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and was completed in 1627 by Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Column of the Immaculate Conception behind me and the crowds on the 8th December waiting for the Pope.

This is an old Roman Feast like so many others during the year. In Rome and in Italy in December.

SAINT BARBARA DAY – City of Paterno, 4th December Saint Barbara is best known in Italy as the patron saint of Paterno in Sicily. The early Christian saint and martyr is also known for being the patron saint of many other things too – including firemen, artillerymen and also firework makers. The Paternò festival has been a mainstay of the 4th December since the 16th century. It’s written that Saint Barbara became Paternò’s patron saint after appearing to a Benedictine nun in a dream. At the time the region was gripped by an epidemic and in desperation, the nun pleaded to the Saint to save Paternò. The miracle happened and as a result, Saint Barbara became Paternò’s patron saint along with San Vincenzo. To celebrate this miracle, Saint Barbara Day is held in the early part of December every year. A religious ceremony allows a moment of serious contemplation and in addition to this, many other events are laid on. These include a parade, sporting and musical events, a Nativity scene and of course, fireworks – highly appropriate for this patron saint of firework makers!

FESTA DI SAN NICOLA – 6th December Another Christian saint to be honoured this month is Saint Nicholas. Greek bishop Saint Nicholas was a Christian saint from the fourth century. But most famously, he is said to be the man who inspired the legend of a certain gift-delivering, bearded chap who tends to crop up quite a bit at this time of year. Santa Claus? Well, this certainly tallies with Saint Nicholas’ generous spirit. What’s more, he would carry out secret acts such as leaving gifts and coins in secret. Abruzzo is one to watch when it comes to Saint Nicholas celebrations. The region is known for its bustling parade and its generous helpings of local traditional breads, biscuits and wines. Venice’s Murano Island celebrates the saint for a whole week, and on the actual day of the 6th, there is a superb water procession.

SANT’AMBROGIO DAY – Milan, 7th December Milan marks its one-time governor and bishop on 7th December. Saint Aurelius Ambrosius was also a theologian, a composer and like Saint Nicholas. Was also a generous man, donating his possessions to the poor, for example. The morning service begins the day’s memorial of Saint Ambrosius. The day is later filled with music, song and celebration. A noteworthy custom on this day is the street market called Oh Bej! Oh Bej! The street market takes place in the streets surrounding Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio and offers a wealth of crafts and antiques. There is also much to eat and drink, including a selection of meats, cheeses, pancakes, sweets and mulled wine.

FEAST DAY OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION – 8th December Originally announced as an official Feast Day in 1854 by Pius IX, The Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception takes place every year in Italy on 8th December. Throughout Italy, ceremonies and celebrations are held to mark the day. Fire is a key element of the event, and this is attributed to a number of interpretations such as getting rid of sins, warming the Madonna or warming Jesus’ garments. With that in mind, many regions mark the day with the flame. Umbria lights the Fires of the Arrival. Abruzzo lights a bonfire as songs are sung. People clutch torches (or faugini) in Atri as they make their way in procession to the cathedral. Elsewhere, Italy honours this day in other ways whether it’s the Roman ceremony at the Spanish Steps or the the consumption of seasoned, fried bread, pettole in Apulia.

SANTA LUCIA DAY – 13th December A Christmas tradition is to leave a pie and a hot drink (or something stronger) for Santa on 24th December. In Italy, another tradition runs along these lines 12 days earlier. To herald Santa Lucia Day, in North Eastern regions of Italy, youngsters are invited to leave a small collection of goodies for the spirit of Saint Lucy, the Christian martyr and patron saint of Syracuse. A cup of coffee is left for Saint Lucy, a carrot for her donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo, her escort. Good children will be suitably rewarded with a selection of gifts left behind the next morning! Syracuse pays tribute to its patron saint with a fireworks display and special parade. The centrepiece of the parade is a large, heavy silver statue. Weighing in at 90 kilos, the statue needs the strength of around 60 men to take it to the Church of Santa Lucia.
The festive spirit is alive each year in Italy. For a serious reminder of the meaning of Christmas, St Peter’s Square in Vatican City hosts Midnight Mass. This event sees many people flock to the Square – the ceremony can also be seen on a large TV in this location. The next day, the Pope also broadcasts his annual Christmas message to the World.
Christmas Eve is lit up in the area of Cortina d’Ampezzo. The Alpine Peak is lit up with skiers bearing torches to mark the dawning of Christmas.
The ultimate Christmas Light Display can be seen in Umbria. Located near the peak of Monte Ingino is the world’s tallest Christmas Tree which boasts over 700 lights and a star that can be seen as far away as 50 km. Torino also puts on a spectacular light show. More than 20km of streets and squares come to life with special illuminations to really get you in the mood for the season.

The Italian Christmas market conjures up its own world in many cases. Many markets are held in purpose-built huts. Trento offers a good instance of this, boasting 60 wooden huts built for the occasion. All sorts of items are available to buy including crafts, festive decorations and home-made foods. Venice’s Campo Santo Stefano also proudly hosts its very own mini-village selling local crafts, gifts, food and drink.

ST STEPHEN’S DAY – 26th December Traditionally, Italians keep themselves to themselves on Christmas Day. It’s a day for family and friends, as their houses are filled with loved ones to enjoy plenty of food, drink and good company. But the next day, the streets are busy again as Italy marks St Stephen’s Day. St Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr and was one of the first deacons of the Christian church. The actual St Stephen’s Day is said to draw inspiration from 26th December 1394. On this day, the relics of Saint Stephen were taken from the repository of the Castle of Monopoli and taken to Putignano in Bari on the orders of the Knights of St John. As the relics were carried by wagon, the knights guarding the vehicle were met with a growing crowd of interested locals. By the time the wagon made it to its destination, it had attracted quite a crowd! To represent purity, a mixture of chickpeas and barley (Farinetta) was created and applied to faces. Today, the day is celebrated in many ways. Sometimes, people choose to make a quiet visit to church to leave a donation. Or, alternatively, processions are held. In Putignano, to replicate the original Mass, poetry is spoken in the local dialect. A common theme of this day is that of Nativity re-enactments. Good examples include Veneto’s 300-strong retelling of the Bible story, the living Nativity scene around the streets of Vaccheria or Fara San Martino’s worthy re-enactment.