Above: the traditional Baile de los Seises in Spain for the Immaculate Conception.
The feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Immaculate Conception is the most solemn of all those which the Church celebrates during the holy time of Advent; and if the first part of the cycle had to offer us the commemoration of some one of the mysteries of Mary, there was none whose object could better harmonize with the spirit of the Church in this mystic season of expectation. Let us, then, celebrate this solemnity with joy; for the Conception of Mary tells us that the Birth of Jesus is not far off.
– Dom Guéranger on the Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the faith stating that Mary was conceived sinless in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. While this truth has been believed since the early times of the Church, it was not until December 8, 1854, that Pope Pius IX dogmatically decreed this truth, thus ending any possibility of doubt. All Catholics are required to believe in this dogma without exception. The decree of Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus reads in part:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
The Immaculate Conception as a
Holy Day of Obligation & Public Holiday
How wonderfully glorious that the Lord preserved Mary from all stains to make her a worthy dwelling place. Originally referred to as the “Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” December 8th became a Holy Day of Obligation in 1708 under Pope Clement XI, nearly 150 years before Pope Pius IX dogmatically and infallibly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Innocent XII in 1693 had already raised it to the rank of “Double of the second class” with an octave for the universal Church. According to Father Wieser in Christian Feasts and Customs, the Greek Rite has kept this feast day as a holyday since 1166 and Spain has kept it as a public holyday since 1644.
The Immaculate Conception is a Holy Day of Obligation in the United States and many other nations. It is also a public holiday in Guam, Italy, Malta, Monaco, and Spain.
Fasting on the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception
On November 30, 1879, Pope Leo XIII added the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception to the Universal Church’s calendar, increasing the number of liturgical vigils from 16 to 17, which not including Holy Saturday, consisted of “the eves of Christmas, the Epiphany, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the eight feasts of the Apostles, St. John the Baptist, St. Laurence, and All Saints.” At this time, the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception was not yet a fast day. These 17 vigils mentioned were still in place at the time of the writing of the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1909.
1955 saw some of the most significant changes to the Church’s Liturgy since the Council of Trent. Pope Pius XII in “Cum nostra hac aetate” on March 23, 1955, abolished 15 Octaves – including that of the Immaculate Conception – in addition to the Octave for the Dedication of a Church, and particular octaves for patrons of various religious orders, countries, dioceses, etc. He also abolished roughly half of all vigils, leading to the removal of the liturgical vigils of the Immaculate Conception, Epiphany, All Saints, and All apostles except Ss. Peter and Paul. The total number of liturgical vigils was now reduced to 7.
On July 25, 1957, Pope Pius XII transferred the fast in the Universal Church from the Vigil of the Assumption to the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception on December 7, even though he had previously abrogated the Mass for the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. Thus, this day starting in 1957 was a day of mandatory fasting and abstinence. This is preserved in the laws in force in 1962 for instance.
By 1962, the laws of fasting and abstinence were as follows as described in Moral Theology by Rev. Heribert Jone and adapted by Rev. Urban Adelman for the “laws and customs of the United States of America” copyright 1961:
Complete abstinence is to be observed on all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday, the Vigils of Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Partial abstinence is to be observed on Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays and on the Vigil of Pentecost. Days of fast are all the weekdays of Lent, Ember Days, and the Vigil of Pentecost. If a vigil falls on a Sunday, the law of abstinence and fasting is dispensed that year and is not transferred to the preceding day. Father Jone adds additional guidance for the Vigil of the Nativity fast: “General custom allows one who is fasting to take a double portion of food at the collation on Christmas Eve (jejunium gaudiosum).”
The Octave of the Immaculate Conception
By the 8th century, Rome had developed liturgical octaves not only for Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas but also for the Epiphany and the feast of the dedication of a church. After 1568, when Pope Pius V reduced the number of octaves (since by then they had grown considerably), the number of Octaves was still plentiful. Octaves were classified into several types. Easter and Pentecost had “specially privileged” octaves, during which no other feast whatsoever could be celebrated. Christmas, Epiphany, and Corpus Christi had “privileged” octaves, during which certain highly ranked feasts might be celebrated. The octaves of other feasts allowed even more feasts to be celebrated.
To reduce the repetition of the same liturgy for several days, Pope Leo XIII and Pope St. Pius X made further distinctions, classifying octaves into three primary types: privileged octaves, common octaves, and simple octaves. The Immaculate Conception was kept as a Common Octave.
Restore the 54 explains the particulars of this Octave in the Church’s Traditional Liturgy of Advent:
The Octave of the IC is a Common Octave. The days within (i.e. Days 2-7) are Semidouble and have precedence over Simple feasts/Advent Feriae, but yield way to any feast of nine lessons. When a higher feast or Sunday occurs, the day within the octave is commemorated at Lauds, Mass, and Vespers unless the feast is a Double First or Second Class; in this latter case, days within common octaves are omitted. The Preces at Prime and Compline are omitted entirely during the Octave. Except on the Advent Sunday occurring within the octave, the proper doxology of the Incarnation sung in the BVM Tone holds for all hymns of iambic metre throughout the octave. At Mass, when there is no saint to commemorate, after the Commemoration of the Advent Feria, there is a third set of orations of the Holy Ghost. The Credo is sung daily by reason of the Octave.
The Sunday within the Octave:
The Pledge Against Indecent Movies
The American bishops at a meeting in Washington in 1938 requested all Ordinaries to have the Pledge of the Legion of Decency taken by all the Faithful at all Masses, in all churches and chapels throughout the United States, on the Sunday within the Octave of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a time when the number of indecent movies – and the perversity of culture intensify – we must rediscover this and, as parishes and families, make this pledge:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen
I condemn indecent and immoral motion pictures and television programs, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to unite my efforts with all those who protest against them.
I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about films and television programs that are dangerous to my moral life.
As a true Roman Catholic, I pledge myself to watch only good motion pictures and television programs. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement and sources of entertainment which are offensive to God and occasions of sin for myself and others for whom I am responsible.
For more information, see Vigilanti Cura, the encyclical of Pope Pius XI on motion pictures, which was promulgated on June 29, 1936. This too has been forgotten and is never mentioned by priests nowadays.
Spanish Customs for the Immaculate Conception
The Spanish were some of the greatest proponents for our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. This is the reason why in Spanish and its dominions, priests have the unique permission to wear cerulean (i.e., blue) vestments. It was a privilege originally given by Pope Pius VII to the Church in Spain in 1817 and later reaffirmed by Pope Pius IX in 1864, in recognition of the centuries-old Hispanic defense of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. It spread to other places formerly under the Spanish Crown as well as seen in the indult granted by Pope St. Pius X to the First Provincial Council of Manila for their use in the Philippine Islands. No other nation is authorized to use it and doing so constitutes a liturgical abuse. The only exception is a rare dispensation that was given temporarily to Marian shrines on special occasions.
Father Wieser in Christian Feasts and Customs states the following regarding the Spanish customs, and I encourage anyone interested in learning more to read through a copy of Father Wieser’s classic text:
Because of its very recent establishment as a holyday of obligation, this feast has not developed any popular customs and traditions except in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, where it has been a great public feast day for the past three hundred years.
Since Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, is the primary patron of Spain, her feast is celebrated everywhere with great public solemnity. People prepare themselves by novenas and nocturnal vigils for the feast, solemn processions with the statue of the Immaculate are made after High Mass, and additional services are held in the afternoon of the holyday. In many places December 8 is also the day for the solemn first communion of children.
In the northern provinces of Spain it is the custom to decorate the balconies of the houses with flowers, carpets, and flags on the eve of the feast, and candles burn in the windows all through the night. In Seville, the famous “Dance of the Six” (Los Seises) is performed in the cathedral on the feast day and during the octave. Six boys, their heads covered according to special privilege, enact an ancient religious pageant before the Blessed Sacrament, dancing in the sanctuary and singing hymns in honor of the Immaculate Conception. This performance annually draws large crowds of devout natives and curious tourists.
All through Spain December 8 is the traditional day of great school celebrations. Alumni revisit their alma mater and spend the day in joyful reunion with their classmates and former teachers. In many countries of South America, it is the day of commencement celebrations, since the long summer vacations start around the middle of December.
Mary Immaculate is also the patroness of the Spanish infantry and civil guard (state police). On December 8 in all towns and cities, troops attend Mass in a body. It is a colorful pageant to watch. Detachments in splendid uniforms march with military precision, brass bands play ancient, stirring music, and the picture of the Immaculate Conception on each regimental flag is held aloft.
Finally, there is the interesting fact that our modern custom of an annual “Mothers’ Day” has been associated in Spain with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. All over Spain, December 8 is Mothers’ Day, and thus the great feast of our Lady has also become an outstanding day of joyful family celebrations in honor of mothers everywhere in that country.
May Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception, pray for the people of Spain to return in earnest to the True Catholic Faith of their past.
While we may not think of liturgical customs associated with the Immaculate Conception, this Holy Day of Obligation is a light of brightness in the midst of Advent penance. Even for those seeking to keep St. Martin’s Lent and the Fast of Advent, this holy day is a short reprieve as we press on to the joy of Christmas Day.
 While they did not use the phrase “Immaculate Conception,” the Early Church honored the Blessed Virgin Mary as sinless since her conception. For instance, St. Ephrem (306-373 AD) wrote alluding to Mary’s sinlessness: “You and Your mother are the only ones who are totally beautiful in every way. For in You, O Lord, there is no stain, and in Your mother no stain.” Hippolytus wrote in 235 AD: “He was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that His tabernacle was exempt from putridity and corruption.” And Origen wrote in 244 AD: “This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.” And there are many other such instances. The dogmatic proclamation in 1854 by Pope Pius IX merely ended a debate that had arisen in the past centuries – fueled often by the Protestants. Editor’s note: for more on this, see the sources in the article by Nishant Xavier, “Eastern Orthodoxy and the Immaculate Conception.”
 We read thus in the Catechism of St. Pius X:
42 Q. How is it possible for original sin to be transmitted to all men? A. Original sin is transmitted to all men because God, having conferred sanctifying grace and other supernatural gifts on the human race in Adam, on the condition that Adam should not disobey Him; and Adam having disobeyed, as head and father of the human race, rendered human nature rebellious against God. And hence, human nature is transmitted to all the descendants of Adam in a state of rebellion against God, and deprived of divine grace and other gifts.
43 Q. Do all men contract original sin? A. Yes, all men contract original sin, with the exception of the Blessed Virgin, who was preserved from it by a singular privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
 In times past, Holy Days would often be referred to as days of single or double precept, with those of double precept requiring both hearing Mass and abstaining from servile works, whereas days of single precept would permit servile work. Nowadays, Holy Days of Obligation refer to days of double precept. See Feasts of Single vs. Double Precept.
Matthew Plese is a Third Order Dominican who resides in Chicago, IL. Matthew is a practicing Certified Public Accountant and Catechist. He is the President of CatechismClass.com, an online based organization whose mission is to make the best in Catholic religious education and Sacramental preparation available for those who need it. Matthew writes a monthly piece on apologetics and catechesis for Catholic Family News and a weekly column for the Fatima Center. He is also the author of Catholic Book Summaries: 54 Traditional and Contemporary Classics; Eschatology: The Catholic Study of the Four Last Things; Understanding the Precepts of the Church, and The Roman Catechism Explained for the Modern World as well as The Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting & Abstinence. He also blogs at A Catholic Life.