December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is the official start of the Christmas season in Rome. It is a holiday and and on this day, all the public Christmas trees are illuminated and the Christmas lights on Via del Corso are switched on.
Last week there was a flurry of activity in preparation for the big day and people had to work at night to get the lights up on Via del Corso so as not to disrupt traffic during the day. The red fir tree in St. Peter’s square is easily the largest in the city at 28 metres (92 feet) tall. This year, it was a donation from Poland though I’m not sure whether it actually came from Poland and how it got here. Unlike previous years, it was decorated rather than just illuminated. Children undergoing cancer treatments in various Italian hospitals made the decorations which were carefully put up over several days with the help of a crane.
December 8th is also our neighbourhood feast day. The church is two doors down from me and the morning started with bells pealing and after Mass, a brass band playing on the terrace. In the afternoon, the statue of the virgin in the church was carried down the hill in a procession that included the brass band and the choir. I was standing on the sidewalk watching when I saw my neighbours, Anna and Gino who invited me to join them which I did. We made our way down the tiniest cobbled streets in the neighbourhood, with the band playing and hymns being sung, stopping in various places for prayers.
I’m sure the young lads from the bar on our street, who were carrying the Virgin were delighted with the praying as they could put her down. It was quite a load with the statue on a platform of flowers together with lights and likely a battery to operate them. We had to have a police escort at one point, since we actually proceeded down Via Gregorio VII, a very busy main road. All the traffic and buses had to stop and wait until the procession turned around the corner and went up the hill. This can’t have gone down well with the people trying to get to their destinations but as Gino informed me, the procession has been taking place since before there were buses and so much traffic on that street. He was born in the neighbourhood and is now in his 70s. It was fascinating to hear what it was like when he was young.
Anyhow, we made our way back to the church where the Virgin was returned to her place and a Mass was celebrated with organ and choir. Immediately after there was a firework display with a view of the dome of St. Peter’s from the church terrace, very beautiful. Finally there were refreshments in the church hall which is around the corner in a spacious garden. I often walk on the other side of the garden wall and always wondered what was behind it so I was pleased to finally find out. I’m not particularly religious but I can see how the church cements the social structure of villages and small communities. A blessing or a curse depending on your viewpoint and whether or not you fit within the structure.