Growing up in Wildwood, NJ leaves me with many fond memories. One of these was the celebration of the vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St. Ann’s Church each August 14th.
When I was young, the Vigil Mass on August 14th was usually packed (standing room only). St. Ann’s could hold approximately 3000 people and I can recall seeing it year after year wall to wall with people. Unlike the famous celebration in Atlantic City which took place during the day on August 15th, the Wildwood tradition was a vigil Mass followed by a candlelight procession down Glenwood Avenue to the beach for the Wedding of the Sea ceremony. In recent years, Bishop Sullivan would preside during this ceremony in both locations.
The Assumption celebrates the Blessed Virgin Mary, after her earthly life was complete, being taken up body and soul into Heaven. At many seashore towns, however, it was somehow tied into the Wedding of the Sea ceremony which had an entirely different history and origin.
Apparently the custom found its way here from a couple of Venetian historical commemorations and a ceremony in which the Doge (chief magistrate) of Venice would "marry" the sea each year, and throw a blessed ring into the lagoon as a sign of eternal fidelity. (Interestingly, the original Venetian ceremony apparently took place in conjunction with the celebration of the Ascension of Our Lord rather than the Assumption).
The Press of Atlantic City reported a variation of the origin of the custom:
According to tradition, the ceremony commemorates an event in the life of the Bishop of Cervia in Italy, Paul Barbo who later became Pope Paul II. The Bishop is said to have been returning by ship from Venice on the Feast of the Assumption in 1445 when he was caught in a storm. The Bishop, it is said, calmed the storm by prayer and throwing his pastoral ring into the sea. (6/16/10)
Throughout history, it was not unusual that Christians would attempt to “Christianize” various secular customs and traditions. No matter what the exact origin of the Wedding of the Sea is, as we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, it is more important to recall the honored place that Mary, the Mother of God, has in salvation history and that her life on earth was worthy of an eternal reward in Heaven. Where Mary has gone, we hope to follow!
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!