We are just coming up to the last of the three annual public holidays in Italy that do not exist in the UK. Although they all technically mark Christian festivals, they are all distinctly secular in flavour – and as the year has progressed and the last remaining Covid restrictions have lapsed, each seems to have been celebrated more enthusiastically than the last.
The first, which falls right at the start of the year but at the end of Christmas, is Epiphany on 6th January and commemorates the visit of the Magi to the new born Holy Infant and thus the revelation of God made flesh as Jesus Christ. That’s the official Church position, at least. More popularly, however, this public holiday celebrates the arrival on the Eve of Epiphany (aka Twelfth Night) of La Befana whose roots are believed to be in Roman festivities that honour Strenia, the goddess of the new year, purification and well-being. This cheery-looking, hook-nosed hag, who in Italy is easily as popular among children as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), rides on her broomstick from house to house, filling children’s stockings with toys, sweets and fruit and a chunk of black-coloured candy to represent the coal which traditionally was all that naughty children received. However, the arrival of the highly infectious new Omicron variant barely a month earlier ensured that this year’s festivities were still a little muted.
The second additional holiday, which falls in mid-summer, is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15th August and was established in the 5th century AD. This represents one of many attempts by the early Catholic Church to hi-jack pre-existing pagan festivities since it was placed slap-bang in the middle of the long-established ‘feriae augusti’. This translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’ and was named after the pre-Christian Emperor who designated August as a period of rest following the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. Now known more widely just as Ferragosto, this very popular public holiday marks the height of summer and has broadly retained its Roman roots as it is typically celebrated with a huge and protracted picnic lunch with family and friends – even though the official reason for it being a public holiday is that it supposed to be the day on which the Virgin ascended to Heaven at the end of her life on earth. By this time there were no restrictions left on anything that would affect people’s enjoyment of the holiday season, but even so, it did rather feel as if people were still a little rusty, perhaps even cautious, when it came to unconstrained enjoyment.
The third additional holiday, the one we are just coming up to, is on 8th December, and is the feast day of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Officially, the Immaculate Conception is one of Catholicism’s four Marian dogmas (ie it was divinely revealed) and celebrates the sinless (ie immaculate) conception of the Virgin Mary by St Anne, which is why the date chosen for the feast was exactly nine months before the date of Mary’s birth on 8th September. This all seems a tad convenient to me, though, as this feast was only created in 1854 by Pope Pius IX – just when some of the more commercial Christmas customs we know today were becoming established. So I can’t help thinking that this could well have been a latter-day attempt by the Catholic Church to muscle in on what they may have feared was becoming an increasingly secular celebration. While the feast does retain some of its sacred character, it is in practice the day that kicks off Christmas when people traditionally put their Christmas tree and decorations up and begin shopping and celebrating in earnest.
And this year, after two tense, joyless and not-very-festive seasons in lockdown, people do now seem to have fully got used to socialising again and so there seems to be a collective urge to celebrate Christmas properly once more. After all, two years ago practically everything was closed for much of the Christmas period, movement was tightly restricted, and there was such a strict night-time curfew that the Pope had to bring forward his ‘Midnight’ Mass by a couple of hours. Even last Christmas, by which time over three-quarters of the population had been vaccinated and the principal restrictions involved just the Green Pass and mask-wearing, many people nonetheless cancelled their celebrations at the last minute thanks to the anxiety arising from the arrival and rapid spread of the Omicron variant – and we were back to the same brave faces and forced jollity as the year before.
But with the pandemic now apparently behind us at last, the current mood – raging inflation and war in Ukraine notwithstanding – seems to be one of unfettered good cheer. Signs announcing Christmas markets and nativity scenes are popping up at every roadside, Christmas lights are going up in every village square, pyramids of panettone and mountains of chocolates, dried fruit and nuts are appearing in every supermarket, restaurants are getting booked up with large, festive get-togethers, and people are filling their trolleys with sparkly baubles, super-size trees and miles of fairy lights in preparation for some proper, long overdue merry-making.
For it is almost as if, even after several months of ever-increasing normality, it is only as Christmas approaches once more that people truly feel that they have finally stepped back through the looking glass. That they – we – have finally left behind the dystopian, back-to-front world of Covid that was characterised by fear, isolation and separation. And that we have at last returned to a world the right way round, where conviviality, sharing and togetherness can be fully enjoyed and celebrated once more – regardless of whether those celebrations are sacred or secular.