Tuesday 8 December is a public holiday in Rome to celebrate the Roman Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception. All public offices and schools will be closed although shops will be open to mark the first day of the Christmas shopping season. Many Romans will also take off Monday 7 December to make a long weekend or ponte (bridge) as it is called in Italian.

On Tuesday afternoon at 16.00 Pope Benedict XVI is driven to Piazza Mignanelli, adjoining Piazza di Spagna in the heart of Rome, in an act of homage to the Virgin Mary. Here he kneels in prayer and leaves a floral tribute that is hoisted to the statue of the Madonna on the top of the column. According to tradition he is also greeted by the mayor of the city, Gianni Alemanno.

The ceremony in Piazza di Spagna is relatively recent. The first pope to mark the feast of the Immaculate Conception there was John XXIII in 1958. However the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception dates back to 1854, when the papal states were under increasing political and military pressure and were about to lose their temporal power for good.