By Joseph Cannavo
Unless they are practicing Catholics, Aug. 15 is just another day to many fourth- and fifth-generation Italian-Americans. Those who are devout in the United States know that it is actually Assumption Day, a Holy Day of Obligation set aside to honor the belief that Jesus’ mother was taken to heaven.
The holiday itself, like many others, has its origins in Pagan religious tradition. It was first observed in honor of the goddess Isis of the Sea on her mythical birthday. However, it was ultimately made a part of the Christian observance, and has functioned ever since as one of the most holy days of this religion.
After attending Mass many Italian-Americans who still honor close ties to their Italian heritage have big feasts to celebrate Mary’s rise into heaven on Assumption Day. Although it is not celebrated as extravagantly as in other countries and is not a public holiday in the United States, there are many states with large Italian-American populations that have festivals with music, dancing, food vendors, artwork, parades and firework shows to celebrate this event. One of the largest Assumption Day celebrations is in Cleveland, Ohio, where there is a four-day festival that starts on Aug.12. The festival celebrates the Feast of Assumption in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood. New York City, with its huge Italian-American population, suspends the laws regarding which side of the street you can park on a regular weekday.
In this area the Assumption Day tradition of blessing of the water — the sea or ocean — still draws numerous devotees to Ocean City, Wildwood, and Atlantic City. In some of these “blessings of the sea” celebrations, after the priest or bishop has blessed the water, some devotees wade out into the water and fill bottles with it, and apparently use it like regular holy water. The custom originated in 15th century Italy, when a bishop traveling from Venice, during a storm at sea on the Feast of the Assumption, prayed and threw his pastoral ring into the sea from the ship — and the waters were calmed.
The celebration in Atlantic City is called the “wedding of the sea,” and part of the ceremony is the bishop (or priest) throwing a wreath of flowers and a ring from a boat into the water, symbolizing the union of the city and the sea. A similar blessing and “wedding” is an annual event in Italian coastal cities — and especially Venice, where it is, understandably, a celebration of longstanding tradition.
In Italy the day is known under the name Assunzione and also under the secular name of Ferragosto, which is the kickoff day of the famous Italian vacation season, when people jokingly say “Italy shuts down” and the holiday takes on a special significance, with many unique features that are commonplace only in that land. For example, many cities in Italy hold special festivals where there is plenty of regional cuisine made available at special low prices. The Italians love a good feast. So, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and the beginning of the summer vacation season is certainly an excellent cause for celebration. There are also lots of fireworks, and a general atmosphere of festival and merriment. It is one of the most boisterous and celebratory holiday observances to be found on the Italian social calendar.