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Why is December 8th a national holiday in Portugal?

virginmaryDecember the 8th in Portugal and the Catholic world is Immaculate Conception Day which celebrates the belief that Mary, mother of Jesus, was preserved from original sin all of her life. For Roman Catholics, it is observed as a day of obligation with required church attendance.

The Immaculate Conception is a Holy Day of Obligation whose meaning is often confused as it is not to celebrate the day Jesus was conceived, it is to celebrate the day that the Blessed Mother Mary was conceived.

Mary’s mother was St. Anne and her father was Joachim. While they are not mentioned in the bible, their names appear in some very early Christian texts. Anne and Joachim had been a childless couple until an angel appeared telling Anne that she would give birth to a child that the world would honour. Anne became a saint as she offered her child to God’s service.

This day has been celebrated since at least the C8th but the idea that the word ‘immaculate’ means that Mary was born without original sin divided many theological scholars over the centuries. It wasn’t until 1854 that the argument was decided when Pope Pious IX proclaimed this belief to be an essential dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.

Portugal was introduced to the Immaculate Conception idea and holiday when it was brought to the country in 1166 by D. Gilberto, the first Bishop of the city of Lisbon. The concept spread rapidly throughout Portuguese parishes.

In 1420, a man known as D. Nuno Alvarea Pereira had an enormous church constructed and dedicated to ‘Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.’ 226 years later, King D. João IV proclaimed that Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception would officially become the national patron saint for Portugal. With this proclamation, December 8th became an important date to all citizens of the country.

Today, this means December 8th is a day people can take off from work, come home, and spend time with their families. It also gives people time to attended extra services with their respective churches.

For the celebration of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic Church holds daily masses on December 8th. The Portuguese remember Mary as Our Patron Saint. Most of the day is spent with family in gatherings or as a typical day without any work. Portuguese people often make use of the free time for outdoor activities. Often, people will also visit parishes that hold local vigils for rosaries as a way to show devotion to ‘Our Lady.’

Even if you do not choose to participate directly in the holiday, you should be aware it is celebrated widely in Portugal and may cause some stores and restaurants to be closed. In many ways, this holiday is a precursor to Christmas celebrations.