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Forgotten Customs of Our Lady’s Nativity

Thy birth, O Virgin Mother of God, proclaimed joy to the whole world; for from Thee arose the sun of righteousness, Christ our God; who released us from the curse, and gave us blessing; and confounding death, He granted us eternal life.
-Greek antiphon chanted at the Magnificat for Vespers II September 8th

One of Three Birthdays Honored in the Liturgical Year

September 8th is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where we recall her birth and role in the divine plan for our salvation. The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of only three birthdays honored in the liturgical year: the others being that of St. John the Baptist and that of Jesus Christ Himself, all three born without original sin, though only Mary and Jesus were free from sin at the moments of their conceptions.

It is not a dogma, but most theologians agree that St. John the Baptist was born without original sin. To be a forerunner of Christ, St. John the Baptist should have been freed of original sin. So, while not an Immaculate Conception, like the Blessed Mother, St. John the Baptist was purified in the womb and born without original sin. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in referencing this miracle which occurred in connection with the Feast of the Visitation, states:

Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should ‘be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb.’ Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin.

Thus, we see a lesser known connection on why the Church honors these three birthdays in the liturgical year – in addition to the days when they departed earth (i.e., Good Friday, Assumption Day, and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist respectively). All other saints are generally honored on the date of their death or in some cases their episcopal consecration – for bishops – or sometimes a separate date close to their date of death if the actual date itself is already impeded by an existing feast day.

The Liturgical Feast of Our Lady’s Nativity

We know little about Mary’s birth and youth with most of our information coming from the apocryphal Gospel of the Nativity of Mary (translated from the Hebrew by St. Jerome, A.D. 340-420), the Protevangelium of St. James (dated to ca. A.D. 125), and the visions of various mystics through the years.

This feast, like that of the Assumption of Mary, originated in Jerusalem. It began in the fifth century as the feast of the Basilica Sanctae Mariae ubi nata est, now called the Basilica of Saint Anne. In the seventh century, the feast was celebrated by the Greeks and at Rome as the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the East, Mary’s birthday is celebrated as one of the twelve great liturgies. The title for the liturgy in the East: “The Birth of Our Exalted Queen, the Birthgiver of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.” The feast is also celebrated by Syrian Christians on September 8th and by Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians on May 9th.

In the Roman Rite, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was granted an Octave by Pope Innocent IV in 1243. In 1913, with the Divino Aflatu reforms of the Breviary under Pope St. Pius X, the Octave was downgraded to a simple octave and the Octave Day itself, September 15th, was replaced by the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The presence of the Octave though illustrates just how important this day was in the life of Catholics for centuries.

Our Lady’s Nativity as A Former Holy Day of Obligation

The papal bull Altitudo Divini Concilii of Pope Paul III in 1537 reduced the days of penance and those of hearing Mass for Native Americans out of pastoral concern due to the physically demanding lifestyle that they lived and also largely due to the fact that they fasted so much already. As a result, the natives were required to only hear Mass on a much smaller number of days: Sundays, Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Candlemas, Annunciation, Sts Peter and Paul, Ascension, Corpus Christi, the Assumption, and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.

When the number of days of precept were reduced by Pope Urban VIII in 1642 to only 35 Holy Days of Obligation, including the principal patrons of one’s locality, this feast day remained as such. It remained as a Holy Day of Obligation in certain areas longer than in others. In Ireland, it remained as a Holy Day of Obligation until 1778 when Pope Pius VI abolished it as a day of precept.

Likewise, it remained as a Holy Day in parts of the New World for some time. The Diocesan Synod of Santiago de Cuba in 1688, which included present-day Florida and Louisiana, listed it as a Holy Day as did the Diocese of Quebec which had affirmed it as a day of precept in 1687. Catholics in the British Colonies kept Our Lady’s Nativity as a Holy Day of Obligation until Pope Pius VI dispensed a number of days for them, including this feast day, in March 1777. (See “A History of Holy Days of Obligation & Fasting for American Catholics: Part 1” for more information.) Most Catholics are unfamiliar with these changes but by keeping sacred the days that our forefathers honored and cherished, we better live out the same Faith they knew and loved.

The End of Summer

For Catholics in the era of western Christendom (1000-1400), the birthday of our Blessed Mother marked an unofficial end of summer and the beginning of harvest season. While this has been lost through the passage of time, we can honor her birthday by reliving some of these seasonal customs. Father Francis Weiser in his “Christian Feasts and Customs” writes:

Since September 8th marks the end of summer and beginning of fall, this day has many thanksgiving celebrations and customs attached to it. In the Old Roman Ritual there is a blessing of the summer harvest and fall planting seeds for this day. The winegrowers in France called this feast “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest.” The best grapes are brought to the local church to be blessed and then some bunches are attached to the hands of the statue of Mary. A festive meal which includes the new grapes is part of this day. In the Alps section of Austria this day is “Drive-Down Day” during which the cattle and sheep are led from their summer pastures in the slopes and brought to their winter quarters in the valleys. This was usually a large caravan, with all the finery, decorations, and festivity. In some parts of Austria, milk from this day and all the leftover food are given to the poor in honor of Our Lady’s Nativity.

Family Customs

Today, parents can easily relive this tradition by having grapes on the table and at the meal. Recall as a family the Providence of God who year by year sends us the rains, protects our farmers, and provides us with the fruits of the earth.

Likewise, it is highly encouraged to have a birthday cake in honor of our Blessed Mother! Have the children light candles, sing her happy birthday, and recite the Rosary or at least a few chanted Ave Marias in her honor. Take this opportunity to teach children this prayer in Latin. To this end, the prayer cards put out by PrayLatin.com would be a great aid for anyone seeking to learn and practice prayers in the language of Roman Rite Catholics.

Today would also be an ideal day to learn about the story of the Miraculous Image of Maria Santissima Bambina and to make a donation to a worthwhile Catholic cause, in keeping with the Austrian custom of donating to the poor on this day in Our Lady’s honor.

Suggestions for Priests & Blessing of Grapes 

Priests, encourage the faithful to keep holy and honored the Nativity of our Blessed Mother. Help the faithful recover the spirit of devotion to our Blessed Mother on this day. And help us to better live out the liturgical year’s forgotten seasonal customs. To this end, offer to bless for the faithful on her Nativity any grapes using the 1962 Roman Ritual’s Blessing of Grapes which, in English, is as follows:

P: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.

P: The Lord be with you.
All: And with your spirit.

Let us pray.
Lord, bless this new fruit of the vineyard, which in your benevolence you have ripened by heavenly dew, an abundance of rainfall, gentle breezes, and fair weather; and have given us to use with gratitude in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.

All: Amen.

They are sprinkled with holy water.

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