“Don’t you know it is our Lady’s feast, and Mary had her mantle spread over us to save us from all harm?” – Father Willie Doyle, SJ (1873-1917).
The earliest document commemorating this feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary comes from a hymn written in the sixth century. The feast may have originated somewhere in Syria or Palestine in the beginning of the sixth century, when after the Council of Ephesus, the cult of the Mother of God was greatly intensified, especially in Syria.
The first liturgical commemoration is connected with the sixth century dedication of the Basilica Sanctae Mariae ubi nata est, now called the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem. The original church built, in the fifth century, was a Marian basilica erected on the spot known as the shepherd’s pool and thought to have been the home of Mary’s parents. In the seventh century, the feast was celebrated by the Byzantines as the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since the story of Mary’s Nativity is known only from apocryphal sources, the Latin Church was slower in adopting this festival. At Rome the Feast began to be kept toward the end of the 7th century, brought there by Eastern monks.
Birth of Mary
On Our Lady’s birthday the Church celebrates the first dawning of redemption with the appearance in the world of the Saviour’s mother, Mary. The Blessed Virgin occupies a unique place in the history of salvation, and she has the highest mission ever commended to any creature. We rejoice that the Mother of God is our Mother, too. Let us often call upon the Blessed Virgin as “Cause of our joy”, one of the most beautiful titles in her litany.
“Impart to your servants, we pray, O Lord,
the gift of heavenly grace,
that the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin
may bring deeper peace
to those for whom the birth of her Son
was the dawning of salvation.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.” (Collect Prayer)
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 that includes the new grapes is part of this day.
In Goa, the feast of Mary’s Nativity, called the “Monti Fest”, is a major family celebration, serving as a thanksgiving festival blessing the harvest of new crops, and observed with a festive lunch centered on the blessed grain of the harvest. In Mangalore it is the feast of Mary’s Nativity, called the “Monthi Fest”. On this day every Mangalorean eats pulses and vegetables. The priest blesses a branch of grain which is added to food. Before the feast on 8 September there are nine days of novena followed by the throwing of flowers on baby Mary’s statue.
In 1730, devotion to Mary in her first infancy among the Franciscan nuns in Lovere, Italy, where a wax statue of the Santissima Maria Bambina was venerated and later brought to Milan under the care of Sisters of Charity. In Southern France, the devotion penetrated into the bride gift wedding custom of Globe de Marièe, where the baby Mary is placed on the cushion, representing children and fertility as one of the ideal wishes of a newlywed bride.
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 honour of Our Lady’s Nativity.
A similar devotion showcasing the toddler stage of Mary began to develop, mainly in former Spanish territories such as Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines, where the La Niña Maria is portrayed as a prepubescent girl.
In the 19th century Mexico, the Conceptionists nun Sister Magdalena endorsed a devotion to the virgin infant, using the Cabeza or head of a cherubim angel from a damaged monstrance to create a Santo image. The pious devotion was later sanctioned by Pope Gregory XVI who granted indulgences to the beliefs of Marian apparition. Ten years later, another Marian visionary, Rosario Arrevillaga, began a religious order devoted to the same Marian title called the Order of the Slaves of the Immaculate Child.
Pope Benedict XV recognised the Marian image in Senglea, Malta under the title of Maria Bambina honouring the nativity of the Virgin Mary, granting the decree of its canonical coronation on 1 May 1920, subsequently crowned by Archbishop Mauro Caruana on 4 September 1921. The image which once adorned a Catholic galleon was shipwrecked in 1618 near the Dalmatian islands and was rescued to the present town, which also celebrates its feast on September 8.
In the Philippines, pious Roman Catholic faithful adapted the same devotion by maintaining the devotion to the toddler Virgin Mary, dressing her in pastel colours and crowning her with a floral tiara to emphasise her virginity and innocence, as opposed to the traditional diadem often reserved to adult images of saints. Similar to Hispanic traditions, candies and cakes are popularly offered in the Virgin’s honour, emphasizing her honorific title as La Dulce Maria or the Sweet Mary.
Though unrelated, certain places with Marian devotion juxtapose the Feast of Mary’s birthdate with their own respective localised images such as Cobre in Cuba, (Our Lady of Charity), Pampanga in the Philippines (Our Lady of Remedies), and Velankanni in India (Our Lady of Good Health).
O Virgin Immaculate, thou who by a singular privilege of grace wast preserved from Original Sin, look in pity upon our separated brethren, who are nevertheless thy children, and call them back to the cenre of unity. Not a few of them, although separated from the Church, have kept a certain veneration for thee; and do thou, generous as thou art, reward them for it, by obtaining for them the grace of conversion.
Thou wast conqueror of the infernal serpent from the first instant of thy existence; renew even now, for it is now more necessary than ever before, thine ancient triumphs; glorify thy Divine Son, bring back to Him the sheep that have strayed from the one fold and place them once more under the guidance of the universal Shepherd who holds the place of thy Son on earth; let it be thy glory, O Virgin who destroyest all heresies, to restore unity and peace once more to all the Christian people.