Italian Christmas Songs

Last year, at Christmas time, my roommate Cristian and I used to hum Christmas tunes all the time: we heard them coming from loudspeakers placed in every corner of our town.

We used to carol Feliz Navidad or White Christmas, wondering why they did not broadcast Italian Christmas carols. Talking about this topic, we could not choose the most typical Christmas song but, in the end, we agreed about Tu scendi dalle stelle: Tu scendi dalle stelle / o Re del Cielo / E vieni in una grotta / Al freddo al gelo (You come from the stars / Oh, King of the Heaven / And you get to a cave / Cold and freeze).   Probably this is the most popular Italian Christmas song but if you ask the most of the people- above all the youngest ones: "in your opinion which is the most important Italian Christmas song?", they would answer Jingle Bells.

Sure enough, although Italy was Christmas'carols cradle, years ago the popular traditions have been replaced from strangers'customes- above all from the USA- through movies' and tv shows' influence.

Anyway, Italy does have a rich oral tradition of choral Christmas carols. Choral chants, featuring sharing, painful and cathartic characteristics, sharp the spirit and consolidate the religious and popular values.You can hear these melodies in the churches or, if you are lucky, in the streets, thanks to the popular bards and to the zampognari, who play reed - pipes: they are the witnesses of the past.

The tunes were created in the XII century by sheperds from Southern Italy and from the Center of the country.The most prolific Regions were Campania, Sicilia and Sardegna; then the chants spread all around.

Afterwards, in Northern Italy, in 1600's, many cradlesongs sung to Jesus, particularly from Bergamo and from Venice, spread among the people.
One of the most famous chant is Dormi, Dormi O'Bel Bambin (Sleep, Sleep, Cute Child), a cradlesong from Corsica sung by Virgin Mary to Jesus.
Anyway, the most famed carol is Tu scendi dalle stelle (You Come From the Stars), adapted from an ancient Neapolitan sheperd melody called Per la Nascita di Gesù (For Jesus'Birth), better known as Quanne nascette Ninno a Bettalemme (When Ninno Was Born in Bethlehem). This carol (1754), written by the Bishop Alfonso Maria de' Liguori, does have historical value since Italy's union was also made thanks to popular events like this: in 1769, the chant spread everywhere and everyone knew it.

Actually, in Naples Christmas topics never involved people deeply; someone explains it by affirming that it depends on the sunny culture of this Italian place. Still we can find many traditional Christmas carols in Naples such as Natale (Christmas, Perrilli-Nardella) or Lacrime Napulitane (Naepolitan Tears, Bovio-Buongiovanni) that is a carol about an emigrant's sad thoughts at Christmas eve.

Actually, the most important theme of these carols is poorness, summerized by the nursery rhyme Mo vene Natale / E nun tengo denaro / Me fumo 'na pippa / E me vac' a cucca (Christmas is coming / And I'm broke / I smoke a cigarette / And I go to sleep).

Another topic is melancholy; we can find it, for instance, in the reed - pipe chant O'Zampugnaro 'nnamorato (The reed - pipe player in love, Gill) that is about a reed - pipe player who leaves his girlfriend because he fell in love with a rich and beautiful lady.

If we go to Sicilia we can notice that the most popular carols are È natu lu bambinellu (The Child is Born) and 'Na sta notti disiata (Longed-for Night).
The main topics are poorness and Jesus'birth that brights and warms up the cold and dark night.

In this Region we can listen to many novene: Christmas carols played by storytellers and other street artists during the nine days before Christmas: they talk about the Sacred Family's misadventures until the Birth.

One of the most outstanding text is Il viaggio dulurusu (The Painful Travel, Annuleri), sung by a blind man and his mate.Other popular carols are Naschid'est (He Was Born) and Duos Isposos (The Bride and the Groom) from Sardegna, San Giuseppe Vechiareo (The Old Saint Joseph) and L'orassion la xe finìa (Veneto).

Foreign songs such as Jingle Bells, Stille Nacht or White Christmas are very famous in Italy and they are part of the Italian Christmas traditions. People know their original versions or their texts' reworking and, subconsciusly, they think that those chants are native Italian.

Eventually, in the last years, new melodies are spreading such as A Natale Puoi (At Christmas Time You Can), song that became famous thanks to a well-known Italian panettone (typical Italian Christmas cake).

Unfortunately, part of the traditional sacred Italian Christmas music was lost but somebody is making a lot of efforts in order to recuperate the handed down carols and to promote them so we won't forget them.