An Italian Holiday Tradition

Gli Zampognari

In the days before Christmas, from the mountains of the Abruzzo, the Matese and the Sannio, the zampognari come down to the cities to add their sonorous magic to the spirit of the coming Holiday. By tradition they come in pairs, in traditional garb: the senior member plays the zampogna (a kind of bagpipe), while the junior partner play the piffero (a kind of oboe.) Always the repertoire includes “Tu scendi dalle Stelle”, the most beloved and best known Italian carol.


In those times

To us Italians living in self-imposed exile (at least for those of us coming from South of Rome), the sight and the memory of the zampognari are poignant reminders of an Italy that is all but vanished, of a simpler time, of a smaller close-knit world of family members and friends, of a lifestyle that played out almost entirely in the home, the local school, the church, the nearby bar, and the town square dominated by the clock tower. All within walking distance. A trip to the big city, 30 kilometers away, was a sometime thing, a serious undertaking, perhaps a treat for a small boy, offered as a reward for some significant milestone, such as a graduation. And the progress of the seasons was marked by unvarying milestones that spooled their stately way across the months: the hanging of the sorb bush outside the balcony, the making of the sanguinaccio by the severe black-clad women who lived downstairs, the bottling of the tomatoes, the taralli at Easter, the return of the swallows to their mud nests built in the seams between the beams and the flat ceiling. And, of course, the advent of the zampognari.

In those times there were no Santa Claus and no Christmas tree; there were instead the Befana and the Presepe. The Befana, a good witch, brought gifts to children who had been good on January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany.) Adults did not exchange gifts in this simpler time: the preoccupation with basic needs was still too immediate to allow detours into discretionary items acquired simply for reasons of status, aesthetics, or amusement.

And now…

But that was then, and this is now. Italians now have Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and the trickle of holiday shoppers is morphing into a torrent. Italians are fond of giving and receiving artwork, custom-designed jewelry, and household items that combine functionality with beauty and tradition. Come Christmas, fashion-conscious young girls promenading along Via Veneto or Via Toledo will sport sparkling Murano glass pendants and intricately crafted earrings, the walls of Italian homes will be newly-hung with original Italian paintings and classic photographs recalling an earlier era, and the lady of the house will be enjoying her new Deruta bowls and serving platters. The old ones, after all, will be thrown out of the window with the outgoing year come December 31.

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