Christmas Special: the Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Today, December 8, is the Feast of The Immaculate Conception. In Italy schools are closed and mommies and daddies don’t go to work. Like every year, since I was born, me and my family decorate home and, within a few hours, the magic of Christmas is on.


Like me, many Italians today prepare the Christmas tree and decorate their houses with Christmas lights and ornaments. In Milan, on the other hand, this tradition is set on December 7, in the day of Saint Ambrose – the patron saint of the city.

Of course today is also the day for the setting up of the crib. According to the tradition, a new piece should be added every year: a shepherd, a lamb or a new workshop to be inserted in our unique nativity scene. Therefore, many people look for their special piece in Christmas markets.

As you may have noticed in this first week of our tales of Italian Christmas traditions, even if the celebrations are the same every corner of Italy has a unique way of living its rites. Every area has its legends and its stories to tell. The day of the Immaculate conception is no exception: even if it’s bound to a widespread religious tradition, it has its folkloristic features.

In many rural areas of the Peninsula there is the tradition of the bonfires. In the past, this tradition was stronger and bound to the purificatory trait of the fire. It warmed the Virgin Mary during her trip to Bethlehem and drove the evil spirits away, especially in a period of the year that is crucial for the sowing.

One of the evocative places where this ancient tradition still lives is Castellamare di Stabia, in the Province of Naples. This is the story we want to tell you.

The Feast of The Immaculate Conception is very important for the inhabitants of the “City of Water” (as Castellamare is called). It’s a real tradition, passed down from generation to generation and indissolubly  bounded to the rite of the bonfire (“ò fucaracchio”, in the local dialect).


This rite has a sacred root, a legend lost in the mists of times and linked to seafaring that all lovers of the local folklore know and recount in detail.

According to the legend one night a fisherman, off the coast of the city, was hit by a sudden storm. Battered by the waves, he begged for the help of the Virgin Mary. The man passed out and, while unconscious, had a vision of the Holy Lady. When he woke up he found himself, still dazed and soaking wet, on the shore of Castellammare and his first thought was dedicated to thank the Immaculate Conception for the miracle. He lit a fire to warm himself and mustered the people around him calling them “Fratiell e Surell” (Brothers and Sisters), inciting them to join him and pray around the bonfire to say the rosary and thank the Virgin Mary for saving him from certain death.

So every year, the night of December 7, bonfire are lit in the city. But there is another rite, the “Fratiell e Surell” one. Starting from 12 days before this date, in every district a devotee walks around the streets at dawn mustering the believers with the traditional “voce” (voice):

Fratiell e surell, ò Rusario à maronn, oggi è à primma stella ra Maronna
Brothers and Sister, the rosary of the Virgin Mary, today is the first star of the Virgin Mary

The twelve stars are those that adorn the head of the Virgin. The first and the last night the devotee is followed by a marching band, while the other nights citizens are woke up by firecrackers. The procession ends in the various parish churches and the chanting of the rosary.

The holy tradition inevitably blends with the pagan one, and the “fucaracchio” has become an unofficial competition between the various districts. The citizens of Castellamare gather for a friendly dinner and then, around midnight, they start to walk around the streets for the traditional stroll.

View from above Castellammare is a unique and incomparable sight, with the facades of the buildings illuminated in red by the light of the bonfires.


Ph. é

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