The Sights and Sounds of an Italian Christmas

Dec 14, 2020

Natale con i tuoi; Pasqua con chi vuoi,” Italians say. “Christmas with your family; Easter with whomever you want.” An Italian Christmas centers on casa (home) and stare insieme in famiglia (being together as a family). But even at a distance the sights and sounds of Christmas in Italy can bring joy.

Il Presepio Presepe  (Nativity Scene)  

Throughout Italy every church constructs a presepio, including presepi viventi (living crèches) with real people and animals, ranging from simple to stunning. Some include hills, trees, lakes, rivers, angels suspended by wires, the Christmas star (stella cometa) and reproductions of an entire village or countryside with the cave (grotta) of Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The culla di paglia (cradle of straw) remains empty until the night of Natale.

In the past many families would go to the woods to gather moss and greens to serve as backdrop for their presepio. Today it’s possible to buy plastic figurines, fake grass and entire miniature villages. However, the tradition of putting together a unique presepio remains strong.

L’albero di Natale (Christmas tree)

Italians in the northern part of the country began decorating Christmas trees after World War II, and this tradition has become widespread. In some parts of Italy, families build a tree of light, a pyramid-shaped wooden frame several feet high with tiers of shelves decorated with colored banners and gilt pine cones. Often a  presepio  occupies the bottom shelf, with gifts of fruit, candy and presents above, small candles fastened to the slanted sides and a star or small doll at the top.

I canti di Natale (Christmas carols)

According to legend, shepherds entertained the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem with their simple instruments. Zampognari (bagpipe players), wearing shaggy sheepskin vests, felt hats and crisscrossed leather leggings, used to come to Rome weeks before Christmas to play in churches. More recently the shepherds arrived later and played their ancient instruments in front of the elegant stores along the shopping streets near the Spanish Steps.

Like so many other Christmas traditions, il canto di Natale (the Christmas song) has Italian origins. In the 13th century, San Francesco (St. Francis) of Assisi and his followers, the first Franciscan friars, created a large number of Christmas hymns to give praise and thanks for the birth of il Bambino Gesù (Baby Jesus).

Italians, like people in other countries, sing hymns such as Adeste Fidelis (“O Come All Ye Faithful”) in the original Latin. However, the lyrics of other classic carols are quite different in Italian. Stille Nacht, for instance, originally written in German by an Ausrian composer, translates, not as “Silent Night,” but as Astro del ciel (Star of Heaven).

Among the many beautiful Italian canti di Natale, the most beloved is Tu Scendi dalle Stelle, written by Alphonsus Liquori in the 18th century. Click here to listen. The lyrics in Italian and an English translation of the first verse:

Tu scendi dalle stelle /  O Re del cielo /  E vieni in una grotta / Al freddo al gelo / O Bambino mio Divino / Io Ti vedo qui tremar! 

From starry skies Thou comest /  The King of Heav’n foretold /  Appearing in a manger / Near frozen from the cold /  Jesus, dearest little Baby / How I long to make Thee warm!

Buon Natale a tutti voi!

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