One of the more memorable experiences on my mission was the celebration of the Immacolata. It made enough of an impression that I wrote a special letter/essay about it five years ago, as I was experiencing it. Thanks to the Italian Wikipedia I found out more about what they are really celebrating, rather than what the elders told me was happening. In honor of this anniversary, I will include an abridged version of the essay.
The Immacolata is is celebration of the immaculate conception of Christ, celebrated on December 8th. Preparation for the Immacolata begins the night of November 26th with nightly processions. The faithful heed the call of a priest with a microphone and a cow bell, beckoning all to come and worship the queen of heaven.. Through the night and into the wee hours of the morning they trek tirelessly through the city, continually repeating the priest's song. It strikes the ear as preparation for a sacrificial rite. As there is a large statue of the Madonna at the end of our street, we were awakened every morning at 4:30 to the sweet strains of pagan chanting. This ritual continues for 12 nights. The night of December 7 is when the real fun begins.
Several days beforehand the local children and teenagers gather scrap wood in their spare time to make bonfires. For a more specific discussion of this topic, please see Jer. 7:18(17-20). There are two or three particularly large fires in various locations near the beach. At the stroke of midnight they torch the wood. As the smoke from incense supposedly carries prayers to heaven, certainly the smoke from moldy zucchini crates reach the Madonna without delay.
As another preparation for the festivities a portable Madonna, cross, and stage (complete with altar) were set up 50 feet away from the permanent statue of Mary. This ensures that one of the two idols will hear and answer your prayers.
Sadly, we were not able to witness the bonfires. We thought it would be in our best interest to be in bed on time. Our zone leader called us lazy, but we prefer the term "obedient." We had also heard hat people tend to get a little rowdy. What better way could there be to celebrate a deeply religious activity than by endangering the safety of others?
Sleep on the night of December 7 is dependent upon the quality of your earplugs and the thickness of your curtains. The festivities begin with the lighting of the bonfires and fireworks. The people then make their pilgrimage to the portable Madonna. Once there they sing hymns to her and and take the sacrament in the street. Because I have high quality earplugs and thick curtains I was able to sleep through the rest of the night's activities, until 6:30, anyway. At that point the fireworks finale charged into gear, waking every man, woman and child from here to London. By now sleep was no longer possible and we arose to see what we could, which wasn't much. However, we were able to hear a stirring performance that sounded like Peter, Paul, and Mary (probably two priests and a nun who chose to take on those names after their vows). Following their performance we were favored with a lovely rendition of Ave Maria, played on traditional Italian Catholic bagpipes. After that the brass band came on the scene. "...and next in line in this annual Immacolata parade is the Castellammare High School marching band. They will favor us with Silent Night." I thought it ironic that a brass band would play Silent Night, complete with all the appropriate drums. Si-ilent night (oom-pah-pah), ho-oly night (oom-pah-pah). After the Festival of Immaculate Pregnancy Parade a few more fireworks went off and everyone went home.
A happy Immacolata to all...in another 12 days.