No Italian Christmas would be complete without the sound of bagpipes. Everywhere from the piazzas of Rome to remote hillside villages, the Zampognari (pipers) continue the tradition of festive bagpipe playing that dates back to ancient Roman times.
Traditionally, the pipers were shepherds who, in a bid to earn an extra income, would travel down from their mountain homes at Christmas time to perform for the townsfolk in their markets squares. The regions where you’re most likely to see a piper are Abruzzo, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Molise, Puglia and Lazio.
The traditional dress of the piper is made of short breeches with criss-crossed leather leggings, sheepskin vests with a woollen cloak and peaked cap; there are regional changes such as velvet jackets or neckerchiefs, but the look of the piper remains mostly the same it has for centuries.
Legend tells us that of the shepherds who visited the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, after gazing upon the baby Jesus, some took out their bagpipes and played. In keeping with the legend, the pipers will stop at public Nativity scenes for a few minutes of quiet contemplation.
Historically, the piper is accompanied by a shawm, a medieval woodwind instrument; however, today’s pipers are usually accompanied by an oboe player. They play traditional music, with a popular song being the Christmas hymn, Tu scendi dalle stelle (You come down from the stars), written by Saint Alphonsus Maria de ' Liguori, the bishop of Sant’Agata de’ Goti.
Watch the zampognari play "Tu scendi dalle stelle":