Il canto di Natale
The Christmas Carol
You expect Christmas to look different in Italy, but it’s surprising to discover that it sounds different too. Rather than jingling sleigh bells, the traditional sound of Christmas in Rome and southern Italy is the music of bagpipes and flutes played by shepherds from the Abruzzi.
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. These days the shepherds arrive later and play their ancient instruments in front of elegant stores along the Via Condotti and other shopping streets near the Spanish Steps.
Like so many other Christmas traditions, il canto di Natale (the Christmas song or carol) has Italian origins. In the thirteenth 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.
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). Here is the first verse and the literal translation into English:
Astro del ciel / Pargol divin /mite Agnello Redentor!
Tu che i Vati da lungi sognar / tu che angeliche voci nunziar, luce dona alle genti
pace infondi nei cuor!
Star of Heaven / Holy child / meek lamb, you are our savior! / You are the one that far away prophets dream about/ You are the one that angelic voices announce/ Enlighten us all / instill peace in our hearts.
Among the many beautiful Italian canti di Natale, the most beloved (and my personal favorite) is Tu Scendi dalle Stelle, written by Alphonsus Liquori in the 18th century. Here are 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!
Italians have adopted some American carols, even though phrases like “jingle bells” don’t translate. Here is the Italian version: “Suona jingle bells / tintinnando nei cammin le campanelle d'or/ Jingle bells, jingle bells / suona jingle bells / E suonando porterà la gioia in ogni cuor.” English translation: Ring little bells! Golden bells are jingling inside the chimneys. Jingle bells, jingle bells/ ring little bells!
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
Click below to listen to an Italian version of "Astro del Ciel":