(Dennis Jarvis, October 9 2016)
If you happen to ask an Italian about the most popular Italian Christmas song, it is almost certain that they’ll cite “Tu scendi dalle stelle”. It is a song so famous and beloved that practically no Italian, regardless of their religion or religiosity, can fail to know it – at least its tune and its first few words.
Still, not many are familiar with its history, and still less know the beauty and poetry of its lyrics.
In spite of being so popular a song, its origins are not, properly speaking, “popular”. It has a definite authorship, and a precise dating: it was written in 1754 by Alfonsus Maria de’ Liguori, who would be proclaimed a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and, later, a Doctor of the Church.
Well, when one thinks of Church Doctors the first image which springs into mind is that of rather stern-looking theologians: and yet, this song is a masterpiece of poetry, creativity, prayer and even sense of humour.
In fact, “Tu scendi dalle stelle” is the Italian title of a song which was originally written in the Neapolitan dialect.
It is well-known that Italy prides itself on its many dialects, which frequently take the shape of true languages: many have a literary history (and Neapolitan is certainly one of the richest in literature), most are very difficult to understand for non-natives of the place, and many words found in the dialects cannot be translated into Italian without using long turns-of-phrase.
St. Alfonsus wrote this very long poem in Neapolitan: choosing the language of the people, he wanted to speak to the simple folk, similar to the shepherds in Bethlehem, but, at the same time, he had at his disposal a fascinating tongue, with which he was able to express religious truths and literary beauty in an extremely poignant fashion.
The lyrics narrate the well-known story of Christ’s birth, but with touches of creative imagery, hilarious details and deeply spiritual moments. “When the Child was born in Bethlehem”, it begins, “it was night, and still it seemed midday”.
Likening Christ’s birth to a light shining in darkness is a Biblical reference, alluding to the beginning of St. John’s Gospel. Nature, for St. Alfonsus, was in awe and amazement at the Saviour’s birth: the birds, he writes, were singing “in an entirely new manner”, but “even the crickets, chirping, were jumping to and fro, saying: He is born, the One who created us”. (Incidentally, the Neapolitan word for jumping, “zombare”, is closer to English than the Italian “saltare”, and much more expressive).
Even though it was winter, the lyrics continue, the “dry and hard hay” on which the Child lay grew new foliage and flowers; here too, the Neapolitan word (“se ’nfigliulette”) is beautiful, as it is literally translated as if the hay “had little children”.
Even sweeter is the following stanza, where the newborn Jesus is likened to a “savoury small bunch of the vine”, who, by His love, “sweetens the mouth, and then makes the heart drunk”.
Then the poem continues with deep Biblical references (from the book of Isaiah), alluding to the universal peace brought by the Child Jesus into the world: here, too, the poet’s imagination contrives beautiful descriptions. The leopard is seen playing with baby-goats; the Neapolitan word for their games, “pazzeà”, has something of a crazy happiness, as “pazzia” is “craze” in Italian.
An angel appears to the shepherds, as in the Gospel narrative of Christ’s nativity: the angel shines more than the sun, and tells the shepherds not to fear, but rather to “rejoice and laugh: earth has become Heaven”.
With the angel comes a multitude of angels, singing “no more war: the King of Love is born, and He gives joy and peace to every heart”. The shepherds were so happy that their hearts were “banging” (“sbattere”) in their breasts; so they “jumped, like wounded harts”, running to the shack: seeing Mary, and Joseph, “and my Joy”, they “experienced a morsel of Paradise”.
They remained for a time “open-mouthed and enchanted, without speaking a word”; then they drew a deep sigh, and shed tears which gave way to “a thousand acts of love from their hearts”. The shepherds take courage and draw nearer to the Child, “with the excuse of giving the presents” (I love this depiction of the humble people who shuffle their feet and need a pretext to overcome their timidity…): Jesus blesses them, and they become increasingly confident.
Then (and this is very Italian in turn…) they ask the baby’s mother, Mary, and are given permission to kiss the Child’s little feet: “They ate his feet with their kisses, then his hands, eventually his face”. Then, all together – angels, shepherds and Mary – start to sing a lullaby, and the Child falls asleep.
After singing, the shepherds returned to their flocks, but were restless: “they went to and fro”, as they missed the sight of the blessed baby. Only the hell and sinners, writes St. Alfonsus, were stubborn and obstinate, and feared the little Jesus: like bats, that flee the sun and like darkness.
Here St. Alfonsus reveals himself to be not just a great poet and theologian, but also – well – a saint: after the tirade against the sinners, he immediately adds: “I am in turn a black sinner, but I don’t want to be as hard as earthware: I want to love and to stay as close to the Child as are the donkey and ox”.
Indeed, he continues, Jesus is “a sun of love”, who “gives light and warmth to the sinner: the more black and ugly he is, as tar, the more you think of him and make him beautiful and shining”. Finally, St. Alfonsus implores Jesus’ Mother, Mary, to pray for him, since she has become the mother of all.
This delightful poem, with its fascinating and unforgettable tune (even more beautiful in the original version than in the briefer Italian one commonly sung today), is in short a memorable compendium of Scripture, prayer, poetry, creativity, theology and of a fresh and humorous inspiration.
I hope that, in spite of the difficulties of the foreign language (or, indeed, thanks to the beautiful sound of the Neapolitan dialect) even the non-Italian readers of MercatorNet will adopt this fascinating song as one of the soundtracks of their Christmas.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website. See also her series on Music of the Reformation Era (scroll down for earlier articles).