Today we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin. December 8 kicks off the holiday season much in the same way that Thanksgiving does back home in the US.
In two days, in Loreto we will celebrate the Feast of the Translation of the Holy House. Known locally as La Venuta (the Coming), it marks the arrival of the Holy House of Mary from Nazareth to Loreto. According to tradition, the Holy House was taken from Nazareth in 1291 and arrived in Loreto during the night between December 9-10, 1294.
According to an ancient tradition, angels carried the house to Loreto. In and around the basilica are numerous images of angels flying through the air carrying the house. As such, Our Lady of Loreto was named the Patroness of aviators by Pope Benedict XV on March 24, 1920. Since this year marks the first centenary of the declaration, 2019-20 is a special Jubilee in the diocese of Loreto.
December 10 is an important feast in Loreto. Schools, businesses, and government offices are all closed in the municipality. Since the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a national holiday, the two feasts create a local three-day holiday.
The period is ordinarily an occasion for immersion in the festivities. However, given the pandemic, this year celebrations will be muted.
Going back many centuries, a popular devotion of lighting large bonfires (focaracci) on the night between 9 and 10 December is customary. This tradition takes place in towns and in the countryside all throughout the region. The idea is to illuminate the path for the angels carrying the Holy House. The fires recall the flight, almost like navigational beacons.
Loreto is the only town in the region whose festivities are organized by the local authorities; the others are all popular devotions.
In Loreto, on the evening of December 9, the Bishop of Loreto leads a prayer vigil that begins after dark. The Litanies of Loreto are recited, and Our Lady is invoked with traditional names like “Gate of Heaven” and “Morning Star.” Traditionally, the bonfire was lit late at night, but in recent years, it takes place earlier — just before midnight.
Along with the bonfires, there is a tradition of lighting firecrackers and displaying fireworks. The customary lights of the season are a nice psychological boost during this time of year. As we approach the winter solstice, the shorter days – combined with typical foggy, rainy weather – make for a dreary atmosphere.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening is when the statue of Our Lady is brought out from the Holy House and processed through the square and streets.
Like all things in Italy, the holidays are marked with seasonal foods. This time of year, baccalà (codfish) is common. It goes well with spaghetti, in stew, or alone. It can be prepared in a frying pan or in the oven. Or, if circumstances permit, it can go straight on the wood-fired grill. With a dash of olive oil and perhaps a pinch of salt, it makes for a tasty meal. Of course no meal this time of year is complete without roasted chestnuts.
Sometimes celebrations and traditions surrounding the holidays overshadow the feast itself. The feasts of the Immaculate Conception and the Arrival of the Holy House are both precursors of hope of what is coming, rather Who is coming.
In seventeen days we will celebrate the birth of our Lord. On December 25, the Feast of feasts marks the coming of the true Light of the world: Jesus Christ.