Feast of the Immaculate Conception

The feast of the Immaculate Conception is a Christian holiday celebrated annually on December 8th. Several denominations may observe the feast, but it is most popular within the Catholic Church. This feast celebrates the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, one of the four dogmas of Roman Catholic Mariology that states that the Blessed Virgin Mary received the grace usually given at one’s baptism at her conception, keeping her free of original sin.

The day is a Holy Day of Obligation that is marked with Holy Mass, processions, feasting, parades, and fireworks. Many cultures reserve it as a day for family gathering and bonding. The day is often confused with the idea that Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin when it actually centers on her own conception.

The rituals are specific to religious services and not many traditions are observed outside of these services. Traditions associated with the holiday include:

  • Religious services centered on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
  • A nine day period of prayer leading up to the celebration.
  • A vigil featuring the lighting of an Advent candle in Mary’s honor.
  • Singing hymns that honor the Virgin Mary, such as “Mother, Dear, O Pray for Me”.
  • Baking Moravian Spritze, gingerbread cookies made for the vigil.
  • Prayer and religious reflection.
  • Feasting, which typically features culturally specific food. There is no specific menu for this feast.

Background

The theory of Mary’s Immaculate Conception has been controversial and debated by theologians since the tradition began. The feast has been celebrated as early as the 5th century in Syria and expanded to wider celebration around the 7th century. The theory states that Mary was born without original sin, as her conception brought her the grace one usually receives with baptism. The belief had been celebrated but not formally acknowledged until Pope Pius IX established the dogma on December 8th, 1854.

Several prominent religious leaders have questioned the belief, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. The theory faced great opposition in France, led by St. Barnard of Clairvaux. However, the believe was given its papal definition in 1854, meaning that it was no longer open to debate by those in the Catholic tradition. Several other churches acknowledge the immaculate conception of Mary but do not widely celebrate it, such as the Lutheran Church and the Anglican Church.

Many countries celebrate the feast as a public holiday, such as Italy, Spain, and the territory of Guam.

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