December 8th is ‘Immacolata Concezione’ (Immaculate Conception Day), when Italy traditionally turns on its Christmas lights, but in Abruzzo, there is another tradition and rite in many towns, the lighting of giant bonfires in both mountain and beach towns and villages accompanied by song and cheer that begin on the 7th December as a vigil!
This pagan tradition dates back to when fires were lit to calm citizens’ nerves about the approaching winter and attract Faunus (also known as Pan), the god of fertility who ensured the fruitfulness of fields and flocks and returned at the winter solstice. Not only did these giant bonfires warm people and allow them to socialise and sing together in the darkest, coldest periods of the year, but there was also the belief it destroyed negative energy. This rite was then translated by the Catholic church into the purification of Mary, destroying sin and keeping temptations at bay. Prayers and songs dedicated to the Madonna were offered and the bonfire was seen as providing light for her path. Immaculate Conception Day was formally created by a Papal Bull in 1854 by Pope Pius XI, and formally established for the church their belief in how the Virgin Mary was immune from original sin from the first moment of her conception.
The Most Famous Bonfires in Abruzzo for Immaculate Conception Day
The most spectacular fire celebrations in Abruzzo are on the 7th of December and can be found at Atri, followed by Collelongo, Pescasseroli, Tollo, Celano, Lanciano, Torino di Sangro, San Giovanni Teatino and San Giuliano Teatino, Montebello sul Sangro village of Limiti-Cantagufo di Palombaro and Francavilla al Mare on the beach. Cansano has a large bonfire but it’s on the 8th of December! Just over the border in Molise, is the spectacular River of Fire, the Ndocciata di Agnone which is really worth a visit on the second Saturday of December. Don’t forget this region was once ‘The Abruzzi’! Simply click on each town’s name to see the details of each event in the Whats On Abruzzo Calendar and the full event program!
Smaller villages will also have fires so do talk to your host or neighbours to find out your nearest, they are an exhilarating and fun experience! When everyone else you know is cooped inside, you can drink, eat well (I had my first white truffle bruschetta at one such event) and be merry around a bonfire!
With grateful thanks to Giancarlo Malandra for use of his Atri photographs!