Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Nativity of Mary

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin MaryArticle

History

A feast in honor of Mary’s birth seems to have been held in Syria and Palestine in the sixth century. Saint Romanus (457), a native of Syria and later deacon of a church in Constantinople, was probably the first one who brought this feast to the attention of the authorities of the Greek Church. He wrote a hymn in honor of Mary’s birth and spread the knowledge of this festival among the population of East Rome. His efforts were highly successful, for in the following centuries mention is made of a celebration of Mary’s nativity in many churches of the empire. Saint Andrew of Crete (740), Archbishop, preached sermons in honor of the feast, as did Saint John Damascene.

This celebration was accepted and adopted by the Roman Church at the end of the eighth or ninth century, but not generally celebrated at first. It spread very slowly through the rest of Europe. Saint Fulbert (1028), Bishop of Chartres, mentioned it in one of his sermons as a “recent” feast. 36 By the twelfth century, however, it was observed among all Christian nations as one of the major feasts of Mary, and remained a holyday of obligation until 1918.

The date (September 8) is explained by the fact that on this day a church in honor of Mary was consecrated in Jerusalem and thus September 8 became an annual anniversary festival of the Blessed Virgin. In Europe this reason for the date was unknown. Popular legends of a later period often supplied the missing explanation by miraculous events. The Syrians also observe on this day the solemn memory of the parents of Mary, Saint Joachim and Saint Anna.

Folklore

In many places of central and eastern Europe the Feast of Mary’s Nativity is traditionally connected with ancient thanksgiving customs and celebrations. The day itself marks the end of the summer in popular reckoning, the beginning of the Indian summer, which is called “after-summer” (Naehsommer), and the start of the fall planting season. A blessing of the harvest and of the seed grains for the winter crops is performed in many churches. The formula of this blessing may be found in the Roman ritual.

In the wine-growing sections of France, September 8 is the day of the grape harvest festival. The owners of vineyards bring their best grapes to church to have them blessed, and afterward tie some of them to the hands of the statue of the Virgin. The Feast of Mary’s Nativity is called “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest,” and a festive meal is held at which the first grapes of the new harvest are consumed.

In the Alps the “down-driving” (Abtrieb) begins on September 8. Cattle and sheep leave their summer pastures on the high mountain slopes where they have roamed for months, and descend in long caravans to the valleys to take up their winter quarters in the warm stables. The lead animals wear elaborate decorations of flowers and ribbons; the rest carry branches of evergreen between their horns and little bells around their necks.

In central and northern Europe, according to ancient belief, September 8 is also the day on which the swallows leave for the sunny skies of the South. A popular children’s rhyme in Austria contains the following lines:

It’s Blessed Virgins Birthday,
The swallows do depart;
Far to the South they fly away,
And sadness fills my heart.
But after snow and ice and rain
They will in March return again.

Liturgical Prayer

We pray Thee, O Lord, grant to Thy servants the gift of heavenly grace: as the child-bearing of the blessed Virgin was the beginning of our salvation, so may the devout celebration of her Nativity accord us an increase of peace.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Nativity of Mary”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 February 2017. Web. 23 April 2017. <>