3. Christmas: Orbi, Novenas and Litanies

In Sicily, as elsewhere, the Christian culture and liturgies have substituted the archaic practises of the winter solstice, but in spite of the centuries-long action of normalisation implemented by the Church, it is still possible to catch glimpses of their remote ancestors in some rituals. First of all, the ones linked to the presence of propitiatory fires, the zzucchi ‘i menzanotti, the ccippi (roots, logs or tree trunks), metaphor of the sun that resumes its rising path (see Buttitta 1985).

Alongside the existence of celebrative liturgical practises that gel perfectly with the canons of the prescription of the Church, we can find other celebratory recitals that are still very much alive, but that actually move further away from it. This is a varied vocal and instrument repertoire, but also a dramatic one, which is strictly connected to the liturgical prescriptions, but at other times, is simply juxtaposed to them.

Player of  zampogna a chiave di Monreale before the votive shrine ('a cona).

Postcard, 1900 ca.  (coll. G. Fugazzotto)

So the expressions of the popular Sicilian tradition do not exhaust themselves in the places and in the canonical days of the Christmas time, but are expressed in parallel to the every day places, making them in some way sacred, in the street before the sacred images or votive shrines (‘a cona), or at home before the Bammineddu (the Baby Jesus). The living presence, furthermore, of the songs linked to the church alms collection underlines once more the permanence of archaic festive practices.

Most of these musical performances go by the name of “Novena”, even if in Sicily this term assumes, as it does elsewhere, a multiplicity of meanings. Novena is also the name given to the religious function that is performed for the nine days before Christmas and the singing that accompanies it. In common usage, then, the term designates both the narrative song subdivided into nine parts corresponding to the nine days of the religious function and the songs with a different formal structure but that are performed within the same celebratory context. Novena is also the name given to some pieces for zampogna or for small instrumental groups.

Wanting to offer an overview of the Christmas sonorous musical tradition in Sicily here we shall try to outline the variety of the repertoire, in an attempt to identify the main forms of rendition:

Novena 1. Vocal-instrumental suite that comprises an introduction performed by a small ensemble of instruments (generally strings and guitar, but also instruments of bands), the singing of the Litanies, the story or the narrative song about the events of the nativity, an instrumental finale;

Novena 2. Narrative song subdivided into nine parts corresponding to the nine days preceding Christmas;

Novena 3. Songs of various formal structures dedicated to the Madonna or to saint Joseph;

Novena 4. Also called Nannaredde or Ninnaredde, vocal or vocal-instrumental, these are the lullabies to the Baby Jesus;

Novena 5. Pieces for zampogna or for small instrumental groups;

Pastorale. Instrumental piece that follows the Novena of type 5 but that can also be performed independently of it; it nearly always coincides with the theme of  Tu scendi dalle stelle of Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori;

Songs for the alms collection. Vocal pieces or vocal-instrumental performed at home to bring greetings and to request in exchange small gifts, generally foodstuffs to be eaten later on.

Different sonorous rituals such as the Pasturedda of Antillo (ME) for bells and bagpipes, the Naca or Bamminu at Isnello (PA) performed by five bells, the usignolo (the swallow) of San Marco d’Alunzio (ME) performed with the homonymous whistle made from reeds during the solemn Christmas midnight mass.

Dramatic action. Forms deriving from the ecclesiastical Pastorals that enact the events of the Nativity or the arrival of the Wise Men, such as the Pasturali of Licata (AG) or the Pasturatu of Rodý Milici (ME), or the descendants of the archaic propitiatory agro-pastoral rituals connected with the winter solstice, as in the case of the Pastoral of Santa Elisabetta (AG).

Forward | Main page