Many people think that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) celebrates the conception of Jesus. This is obviously untrue (his birth being on 25th December) and it is actually a celebration of the conception of the Virgin Mary herself. It made sense therefore to believe that she was born exactly nine months after this date and her birthday was consequently celebrated on September 8th.
In the middle of the 13th century the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation) was built in Florence by monks of the Servite order. One of the monks started a painting of the Annunciation but he abandoned it as he felt he could not do the subject justice. Legend has it that the painting was finished by an angel while the monk slept and it was subsequently placed in the church where it rapidly became worshipped.
Pilgrims began coming to the church to honour the miraculous painting and many of them left life-size wax ritual offerings of themselves and even their horses. In 1516, a special atrium, the Chiostrino dei Voti was built to house the figures and by the end of the 18th century there almost 600 of them and they rapidly became one of the great tourist attractions of Florence. Unfortunately, they were all melted down in 1786 in order to make candles.
The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata became one of the main pilgrimages for celebrating the birth of Mary and the farmers and peasants from the surrounding countryside walked into the city to join the Florentines for the festivities. The time of year meant that they had plenty of home grown produce from their farms and land and it became tradition for them to bring as much as they could on their journey and set up market in the square outside the church. This meant that they not only enjoyed the festivities but also made some cash for the harsher winter months ahead.
They generally arrived the evening before (7th Sept) and left home either early in the morning or late the previous night. This meant that they were doing much of the journey in the dark so they carried lanterns to light their way. The lanterns were made by encasing candles in thin paper and then attaching them to sticks to make them easier to carry and this is where the Festa della Rificolona originated.
Photo: Ettore Timi
Nowadays, on the evening of September 7th the children of Florence, headed by a band, parade from Pizza Santa Croce to the Piazza Santissima Annunziata and they all carry colourful paper lanterns attached to sticks. The celebration of the birth of the Virgin Mary on the following day is now much diminished but the traditional market is still going strong.