A long time ago, in a kingdom far, far away, a ruler and his noblemen began a great tradition. The kingdom was called Venice, and the king was called the doge. Though the nobility of Venice were rich, some of the city’s peasants were very, very poor.
Every year on February 2 -- the Feast of the Purification of Mary, Mother of God -- all the young couples who were going to be married that year were blessed by the bishop. However, there were many young girls whose families were too poor to provide them with a dowry. The doge and his nobles decided they would choose 12 of these girls and fund dowries for them. They also lent the girls fine clothes and jewels from the kingdom’s personal coffers to wear during the ceremony. To be chosen was a great honor, and the young brides became known as the “12 Marias,” after the feast day on which the blessing took place.
The tradition developed happily over many years. Then one year, everything changed. The Festival of the 12 Marias being now very well-known, a bold band of pirates decided it was the perfect opportunity to make their fortune. They would attack the city during the blessing ceremony, kidnap the brides-to-be, and keep them and all the jewels of Venice for themselves.
The attack went as planned. The pirates escaped, hauling the terrified girls along with them, to the shock and horror of the people of Venice. The army, the husbands-to-be, and all the able-bodied men of Venice, including the doge himself, chased after the pirates. They engaged and defeated the pirates, and they brought all the girls home safely. The doge declared the victory a miracle, and in the years to come, it was celebrated and commemorated in all its glory.
The festival became not only a blessing of the young couples-to-be but also a celebration of thanksgiving to God for saving their city and all the young brides. For a while, this made the festival even grander than before. The 12 Marias were paraded triumphantly through the city for all to see. Crowds larger than before gathered to watch, and the festival became as patriotic as it was religious.
But it didn’t take long before financial troubles scaled down the festival’s grandeur. And scaled it down more. And down some more. The 12 Marias became 4, and then 3. And then Venice went to war. After so much money was spent to save the kingdom, there wasn’t enough left to provide dowries for a few poor peasant girls.
By this time, the festival was deeply ingrained in the city’s tradition. The nobility hesitated to do away with it entirely, but to keep it, big changes had to be made. Finally, the nobles decided they didn’t have to sponsor any young brides at all. They could commemorate the victory just as well by replacing the girls with dolls made of wood that would be paraded down the street in their place.
The people of Venice weren’t happy with that solution at all. They threw vegetables at the wooden dolls as they were paraded past. Things got so out of hand that the nobility passed a law making it illegal to throw vegetables at the puppets. The festival became less and less popular until it disappeared entirely.
Finally, it was brought back in modern times to commemorate the city’s past, with real girls again posing as the 12 Marias. Since everybody wanted the honor of being chosen as one of the Marias, and the city no longer had to provide them with dowries, the city didn’t lose any money by choosing real girls over the wooden dolls. The Festival of the Marias is held on February 2 and is an important event during the celebration of Carnival. To this day, the wooden dolls are called “marionettes,” after the 12 Marias they were first made to represent.
Want to celebrate Carnival like you’re in Venice? Check out these beautiful masks available on Amazon! Wear one of these to your local Carnival or Mardi Gras celebration, and you’ll be the talk of the town!
Want to see video footage of the Festival of the 12 Marias? Click here!
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