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“Tu scendi dalle stelle”, Italy’s Beloved Christmas Carol and How It Was Born

In the near-absence of a national tradition of Christmas carols, Italian children have been brought up singing “Jingle Bells”. Here we take a close look at why

The Colosseum at Christmastime. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

When I moved to Rome after my college graduation, it took me only one holiday season to realize that in Italy there was no national repertoire of popular Christmas music. I was unaware that Christmas hymns praising the Baby Jesus had been sung during processions in central Italy since the 13th century. Nor did I know that, since the 16th century, numerous lullabies, particularly in Lombardy and the Veneto, and later in Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia, are dedicated to Him.

I grew up in New York City.  I joined my parish choir in the 4th grade and in high school sang in three services on Sunday:  Sunday School’s at 9:30 AM, at 11:00 AM for parents and parishioners, and Vespers at 8 PM. When I moved to Rome after my college graduation, what I missed most besides my family and friends, was the inky smell and world-wide coverage of The New York Times, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Entenmann’s donuts and my choir, particularly at Christmastime. In Rome at the time there were no Christmas services devoted exclusively to Christmas songs and no neighborhood door-to-door sing-alongs. It took me only one holiday season to realize that in Italy there was no national repertoire of popular Christmas music.  Actually, that’s not quite right there was (and still is) one and only one Christmas melody sung throughout the boot.

I have no Italian blood, so I was unaware that Christmas hymns praising the Baby Jesus had been sung during processions in central Italy since the 13th century. Nor did I know that, since the 16th century, numerous lullabies, particularly in Lombardy and the Veneto, and later in Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia, are dedicated to Him.

Moreover, in my two generations of attending Christmas celebrations in several different Roman schools for my nephews, daughters, and grand-children I’ve never heard “Caro Gesù bambino”, written in 1960 for the second edition of the Zecchino D’Oro, or my hero (1959), though I am well acquainted with his prolific Neapolitan secular repertoire.

So, when I first lived here and shepherds from the Abruzzi mountains used to flock down to Rome and play “Tu scendi dalle stelle” over and over again on their homemade bagpipes on almost every street corner, I couldn’t help wondering why their repertoire was limited to this one song?  Sadly, soon even this custom disappeared and so my daughters and grandchildren have grown up with “Jingle Bells” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”, instead.

Speaking of snow, blizzards are an almost unheard-of event in The Eternal City.  Since my arrival blizzards have occurred in March 1971 (melting the same day); and in 1985 and 1986 on Epiphany, both of which froze, causing serious traffic jams and damage especially to Rome’s umbrella pines. Then, after a 30-year hiatus of no snow, there were two nearly back-to-back storms on February 4 and 10 in 2012, followed by February 26 and 27 in 2018, and lastly, in 2019 on my Saint’s Day, December 13th.

February 10, 2018 St. Peter’s Square. The square covered by snow. Photo: G. Galazka.

Historical snowfall data can be traced back to the winter of 1709, but the earliest mention of snow in Rome oddly dates to the night of August 4/5, 352 AD. Tis is almost certainly a legend. It seems that for a long time a childless elderly patrician couple had wanted to use their wealth to honor God. They prayed fervently for a signal on how to fulfill this desire. That August night an angel appeared to the husband in a dream and told him that the next morning he would find snow, although it was summertime, on the site where he should build a church.  The next morning Giovanni rushed to recount his dream to Pope Liberius (r. 352-66), who surprisingly had had the very same dream.

A plaque in Nola indicating where St. Alphonsus wrote “Tu scendi dalle stelle”. Photo: Wikipedia.

So together they, pope and patrician, went with a procession of priests to the angel’s miraculous location on the Esquiline Hill where on the still intact snow they outlined the perimeter for a new church.  This early church was demolished in the 5th century during the reign (432-440) of Sixtus III to build a more sumptuous one with the name of Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in remembrance of the Council of Ephesus in 431.  Mosaics by Filippo Rusuti dating to 1288 depict the story of the miracle.  They are still visible today in the 18th-century loggia that covers the original façade.  In addition, every year on August 5th from 8 PM to midnight the miracle is recreated using white rose petals for snow.

Now to return to “Tu scendi dalle stelle”, although we know its music and its lyrics were both written by Neapolitan Alphonsus Liguori, it’s not common knowledge that today’s song was inspired by the Neapolitan folksong “Quanno nascette Ninno a Bettlemme/Era nott’e pareva miezo journo” (When the baby was born in Bethlehem/it was nighttime but seemed noontime”) and that Alphonsus was the first priest to write the lyrics for a religious song in dialect.

The rest of its early history is a bit garbled.  Some scholars believe that Alphonsus, a gifted musician, wrote the music, but with the lyrics in dialect on November 9, 1732, while he was staying at the Convent of the Consolation in Deliceto, a town in the province of Foggia and that only later did Pope Pius IX translate Alphonsus’ lyrics into Italian in 1870.  Others think that Alphonsus wrote two versions, one with lyrics in dialect and one with lyrics in Italian, at the same time in Nola where he was bishop in December 1754.

In any case, “Tu scendi dalle stelle” has seven verses of six lines each. Their lyrics are far from joyous, much less concerned with the joy of Baby Jesus’ birth than with the heart-rending sacrifice of his death to save mankind. Alphonsus revised his text several times, but the song’s slightly different musical versions are due to its widespread popularity.

Sant’Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori. Filia Ecclessiae, courtesy of Inside the Vatican.

The composer Ottorino Respighi incorporated its music in the second movement of his symphonic poem Trittico Botticelliano (Botticello’s Triptych), a work inspired by the artist’s three most famous paintings: La Primavera (Spring), L’Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Three Kings), and La Nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus). Variations of its music were recorded in Claudio Villa’s “Le intramontabili” (1958), in “Topo Gigio en Navidad” (1961), in Luciano Pavarotti’s “Carnival” (1997), and most recently in the Piccoli Cantori di Torino’s “Buon Natale” (2011). Not to mention that Piero Niro wrote a composition entitled Three Variations on “Tu scendi della stelle’ for a large orchestra” in 2000 and Andrea Bocelli recorded renditions in 2009 and 2015.

There are several translations of the lyrics into English.  In the United States the piece was first published in 1932 by A. Paolilli’s Music Co. of Providence, Rhode Island, which credited the music to Tommaso Capocci and the words to Pope Pius IX with no mention of Alphonsus. In the 1960s several versions of the song in English were recorded.

Stamp honoring St. Alphonsus.

Although certainly beloved in Italy for this song, Alphonsus is admired worldwide as a distinguished theologian and prolific writer. He published nine volumes of his Moral Theology (1748) in numerous editions during his lifetime, afterwards translated into over 20 languages. Among his other best-known works are The Glories of Mary and The Way of the Cross, still used in parishes during Lenten devotions. One of the most widely read Catholic authors, on April 26, 1950 Pope Pius XII named him the patron saint of confessors and moral theologians as well as of lawyers, his profession before ordination.

Previously, on September 1816, Pope Pius VII had beatified him; on May 26, 1839 Pope Gregory XVI had canonized him and in 1871 Pope Pius IX had proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church.  In 1987 Italy issued a 400 lire stamp to commemorate the 200th anniversary of St. Alphonsus’ death and in 1996 the Vatican issued a 1,250 lire stamp to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his birth.

On November 3, its title certainly in homage to Alphonsus, San Paolo Edizioni published ‘Tu scendi dalle stelle’…ed è Natale, a new book about the true values of Christmas by Angelo Cardinal Comastri, Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vicar General for the Vatican City State, and President of the Fabric of Saint Peter.

 

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