The annual Aug. 5 festival celebrating the “Miracle of the Snow” in front of St. Mary Major (Esquiline) Basilica has become a tradition cherished by Roman people, and an appointment that everyone looks forward to every year. This 36-year-old event is meant to remember the miraculous event that gave rise to the construction of the basilica — one of the four papal basilicas in Rome — in the fourth century.
Starting at 9 p.m., the festival — whose 2019 edition was dedicated to the revival of Notre Dame of Paris after the April 15 blaze and to Leonard da Vinci on the 500th anniversary of his death — consists in a national brass band of Carabinieri, live music and chants, readings and a light and laser show, culminating in a fake snowstorm that eventually whitens the whole square. Promoted by Roman architect Cesare Esposito since 1983, the show gathers each year thousands of people. It follows the traditional morning Mass within the basilica, during which white rose petals fall from the ceiling to mark the Marian miracle.
According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius and to a wealthy Roman patrician named John during the hot summer night of Aug. 4-5, 356, asking them to build a sanctuary in a place she would shortly indicate. The next morning, a mantle of snow covering a defined perimeter was found on the top of the Esquiline Hill. The construction process officially started under Pope Sixtus III’s pontificate (432-440), as the culmination of the Council of Ephesus (431), during which the Virgin Mary was declared as Mother of God (Theotòkos). The basilica is thus the most ancient Marian sanctuary of the West.
“For us Romans, this event represents an annual appointment with the Virgin Mary” Antonella Maugeri, a local resident, told the Register. “For many of us, it is above all a tradition that has endured for many years and I am happy to be here as it reminds me of an important tradition.”
Such tradition is deeply rooted in the city’s identity for historic and spiritual reasons. As Donatella Rocca, another participant in the celebration, points out, “Marian devotion is integral part of Italy’s, and more specifically Rome’s, history and culture.”
“This event is a moment where we can feel the unity with Our Lady in a deeper way, as she is our people’s Mother and she always guides us,” she said.
The Feast of the Miracle of the Snow is considered one of the three main Marian events of the year in Rome, together with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 — during which the Romans usually gather at Piazza di Spagna under the Column of the Immaculate Conception — and the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel July 16 – during which Rioni Monti and Trastevere, two districts historically rivals, gather in the name of Mary.
“The Virgin Mary is the protectress of the Roman people and this basilica enshrines the venerated icon of Salus populi romani,” Padre Lucio Zappatore, parish priest of St. Martin of the Mountains Basilica, told the Register. Zappatore has a special predilection for St. Mary Major and attends this summer celebration every year. “It is such a beautiful signal that every time Pope Francis goes on a trip abroad, he goes to greet the Virgin Mary here first. And when he was elected Pope in 2013, his first gesture as a successor of Peter was to visit the basilica the following morning and pray before the Byzantine icon, which is one of the most antics icons in Rome.”
St. Mary Major, which mixes different architectural styles, also has the characteristic of being the only one to have maintained its early Christian structures. Moreover, the basilica’s coffered ceiling is said to be gilded with the first of the gold that Christopher Columbus brought from the New World at the end of the 15th century.
“The beauty of this basilica, as well as the beauty of this show that reminds us of the Miracle of the Snow, embody the beauty of life and the love of the Virgin Mary for all of her children,” Sister Geneviève Haday, from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, told the Register. “It is with the same amazed look that we must see life, which is as beautiful as these chants, music and colors, that give us the strength and enthusiasm to pursue an authentic Christian life.”