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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let's talk Christmas the Italian Way

Buon Natale!

It's Christmas time in Italy and I want to be there. Why? I want to sit at Bar Dante in Radda and see if any "zampognari" show up playing their bagpipes. That's right - bagpipes. In Italy.

A few years ago, I was helping a friend in Tuscany clean out a closet. We found her box of Christmas stuff and in this box was a Nativity (presepio). It had all the usual players except for this one guy who looked like a shepherd. A shepherd who was definitely playing a bagpipe (zampogna). He was in there for good reason: bagpipes are the most common Italian Christmas sound. And, as always, this is due to tradition and stories. As I've said before, everything in Italy is connected to a story.

The zampognari , the shepherds who play the bagpipes, come down from their mountain homes at Christmas time and perform in the market squares. At least in the 1930s they came down from the mountains. Nowdays I think they just drive their vespas into the village. Back then, they came to wish a Merry Christmas to the people and would play in front of every house in a village. The villagers would offer them food or money. Then this little band of merry music-makers would trek off to the next village and continue until they were too cold to continue or had enough food and money or both.

This sounds much like our caroling groups of today but, back then, these were very poor people trying to earn money and to get something to eat - all in cold weather while leaving their families alone at Christmas time. Apparently, the shepherds also used this annual pilgrimage to migrate their sheep from one area to another. The villagers always looked forward to this tradition because the shepherds were regarded as "gente con poca cultura, pecorari, gentilissimi, troppo gentili" ("people of little education, herders of sheep, with the kindest of hearts, only too kind."). Gee, I'm feeling all heartwarmed now - I love these stories!

There were other enterprising fellows who tagged along with the musicians, usually in pairs. One man would have a birdcage with a parrot (pappagallo) and another with a little accordion-type instrument (organetto). In the cage, there were little folded pieces of paper with a written "fortune" on each. After paying a coin, the people would ask the parrot to choose a fortune for them. The saying "la fortuna del pappagallo", ("the fortune foretold by the parrot"), comes from this tradition.

So, if you're lucky enough to be celebrating the holidays in Italy, keep an eye out for these wandering bagpipe-playing "shepherds". The modern zampognari wear the traditional outfits of sheepskin vests, leather breeches, and woolen cloaks. You will hear the bagpipes before you see them. I wonder if they have sheep with them.....

I will go to Italy anytime of the year, but if the cold weather doesn't appeal to you, take a look at the tour dates posted on my website for 2010. Or ask about any other dates, too. Like I said, I want to be there.

Merry Christmas!

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