As we approach the Feast of the Immaculate Conception holiday on the 8th of December, when Italy officially gets ready for Christmas, people in many parts of the country will be eagerly awaiting the appearance of the zampognari or bagpipe players. The zampognari were originally shepherds who came down from the hills at Christmas to celebrate with their families and entertain people at various shrines but now they are often men who work in cities but whose families have a zampognaro tradition.

The players derive their name from their instrument, the zampogna, which in turn is a corruption of Greek “simponia”, meaning single reeds. This instrument is a kind of double chantered pipe but some of the zampognari play the piffero - ciaramella or ciaramedda in dialect - a kind of oboe, instead. Each pipe is tuned differently according to the tradition in the area where the players come from. The reeds are traditionally made from the giant reed “canna marina” although some are made from plastic these days and the bags are traditionally made from goat hide or sheepskin but again, synthetic materials are now often used . The pifferi are made from the wood of olive or plum trees. All zampognari still wear traditional dress.

No one is sure about where the zampognari tradition exactly began: some argue for Abruzzo or Molise, others for Rome and still others for Sicily. The zampogna tune, “Quando Nascette Ninno” [“When the Child Was Born”] is the original version of Italy’s favourite Christmas carol, “Tu scendi dalle Stelle” [“You Come Down from the Stars”]. Of course, the zampognari play many other traditional melodies as well and some of these extol the beauty of Italy’s various regions. The tunes are joyful and make people want to tap their feet or get up and dance.

Where will you find the zampognari this Christmas? Although people are worried that the tradition is dying out, it is very much alive in Abruzzo, Molise, Lazio, Sicily, Campania, Basilicata and Calabria. They often appear where there are grottos or at Christmas and open air markets and you will see them in the streets of Rome. Children, in particular, love the zampognari but they make everyone happy by wishing them a “Buon Natale” and offering them the gift of friendship. And if you want a souvenir, you will often see zampognari figurines in Christmas cribs.

Look out for the zampognari if you are going to be in Italy between now and Christmas, especially on the 8th of December and on Sundays!