Christmas Time in Sicily

Song: Mi sconcica (She teases me) 

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By Fara Misuraca
English translation by Nino Russo


The songs of the blind

   In Sicily Christmas time is traditionally marked by a series of religious ceremonies, devotional practices, a seasonal food menu, and group games. Among the Christmas traditions we cannot help but remember the singing and musical traditions and the dramatic-musical presentations which are part of it. The singing musical tradition more striking, as far as the viewpoint of religiosity certainly was, and maybe still is, the novena, which gave occasion for gathering of relatives, friends, and neighbors for the festivities. The Christmas novenas consisted of extensive hymns that in nine days, preceding the eve of Christmas, told of the vicissitudes of the Nativity: the Annunciation, the Birth and the Flight in Egypt.

   It was tradition that, in the proximity of Christmas, people prepared near the door of the house a little altar, richly adorned with flowers, fruit (oranges, dried figs, nuts, etc.), and greenery; a tangible sign of the intensity of the devotion. The novenas were mostly recited by blind story singers by the request of the "customers" either in the houses but above all, outside, in front of the altars. The group of singers was usually composed of two people: a blind violin player-singer and a guitarist for accompaniment. From the Eighteen hundreds on, the novenas, as reported by Pitre`, were executed by the bagpipe player (ciaramiddari) and by other non blind players (guitar, tamburines). The texts were handed down orally and often were retrieved from the apocryphal gospels, which had been banned by the Church in the medieval times.

   It was only at the end of the XVIII century that they start to be written and getting to us. At the end of the singing (cantata), the "customer" offered bread, dried fruit, wine, and even some coins to the players (whomever was in Sicily as a child even in the fifties, may still remember the coming through the streets of such individuals dressed as shepherd who would stop in front of houses and sing the novena) The request for their recompense part of the song which would end with a verse like this:


Is born the little baby
Now give me the reward


We are done with our playing
Give us cookies and money 
(Christmas cookies, cucciddat)


Here is an example of the songs of one of the last blind singers in Palermo,
U zu Rusulinu (uncle Rosolino), who died in 1975 (by E. Guggino, 1980):


As the star reached the point,
On the spot suddenly stopped,
Lowering its light in a fashion
As to engulf grotto and all.

And it told many there present
From one side to the other
To get inside in the grotto,
To see the holy inhabitants.

After entering those people,
They all fearful came out,
And to the three kings of Orient
Whispered: "Look inside!"

Jasper first enters saying:
"Oh my God, treasure rich,
I brought from me to you
This vase full of gold."

Balthassar, with much décor:
"Oh my God I brought to you
Fragrant incense for your joy,
It will be by you made holy."

Melchior grateful and humble:
"Oh my God from high above
I have brought you bitter myrrh
Of your suffering the symbol."

Here the mother of the rare child
Disrobed His hands and feet,
The three kings most grateful
Kissed joyfully His hands and feet.

Glory, glory He is born
The true man and true God.


The Blind Storytellers in Palermo

   The memory of the blind story singers has its roots in ancient time, deriving from mythic singer-poets. Blind were Homer and Demodocus, true story-singers, and blind were Fineus and Tiresia soothsayers. The blindness of the Singers and Soothsayers is represented in a series of Greek myths as a divine gift or being of sacred nature: that of inspiration and clairvoyance. The poet, as the oracle, has eyes closed to the earthly things but wide open to a different reality. With the passing of the centuries, the blind storyteller lost these noble qualifications. His profession started to be dictated by necessity, given the limited working capacity, to make a living in a dignified way. In the classic period the poet-singers were respected and honored, we can think of Demodocus at the court of the Feax or of Phemius at the court of Itaca or Homer who represented them all. Their repertoire consisted of myths and heroic achievements and by mundane music and songs. The characteristics have not changed in the course of the centuries, but the social status of these singers have.

   The blind singers were ambulatory players and beggars and, from medieval times, this has been the stereotype given even though their presence at times is documented in courts and rich mansions. The professionalism and skillfulness of these players, initiated from boyhood into this profession, under the guidance of a teacher, made them wanted in the festivities of the rich people. The majority of them lived nevertheless as ambulatory players, accompanied by a seeing-eye dog or by a boy poorer than the singer himself. In Palermo, between 1660 and 1665, there was a change: by initiative of the Jesuits and thanks to the donations of some families, the blind storytellers were able to form an organization with the title of the Immaculate Conception and kept residence in the Casa Professa of Palermo. Many were the organizations borne on this example, such as those of the Nobles, of the Priests, of the Artisans, of the laborers and many others and these also kept residence in the Casa Professa such. Their existence was always tormented, because they followed the fortunes and misfortunes of the Jesuits.

   Two important and well documented dates in the history of the organization of the blind singers are August 14, 1775, when it gave itself, or redid, the statute, and November 30, 1767 when the Jesuits were expelled. Two months prior to this, the Extraordinary Junta of Abuses released an unambiguous judgment over the operation of the Company of Jesus, defining its end as "…the most profane, the greediest, the darkest, the most inhumane, the most criminal…" and that " had corrupted the youngsters, damaged the costumes, altered the faith, divided the people…" (F. Scaduto, State an Church in the Two Sicilies, 1969; F. Renda, Bernardo Tanucci and the properties of the Jesuits in Sicily, 1974). The organizations associated with the Jesuits, among which that of the blind, even if they kept their, were definitively removed from the Casa Professa in 1773 when, on July 21 of that year, Pope Clement XIV declared the dissolution of the Company of Jesus. Nonetheless the organization of the blind was able to take back some of those locales after 1805, when the Jesuits came back after their order was restored (1804), but it wasn't until 1828 that their new statute was approved by Francis I of Bourbon.

   In this statute the rules for the admission into the organization were established: blindness, good habits, use of a musical instrument (usually violin or guitar). After the admission, six months of novice status were necessary. Those who knew only how to play an instrument (but did not know how to sing or do lyrics) had to pay a registration fee of 4 tari and two granes per week. The members, once in and having completed the probation period, could make a living singing and playing prayers and holy stories in the streets. The rules of election for the Board of Directors and of all the minor job titles were established along with their respective obligations. These gave the idea of a society firmly constituted and strongly hierarchical. The benefits for the confraternity were recognized: burial rights, assistance due to sickness and, in the case of a diagnosis of terminal sickness, the person would have the right to an "extra" six tari to buy pastries. 

   Above all, with this statute, the State would limit the interference of the Jesuits in temporal matters and freed the profession of players, abolishing the Episcopal privilege that forced the blind storytellers to register in the organization to be able to exercise the profession of ambulatory player. The congregation was auto-financed by the money earned by the confraternity and deposited under the title of "voluntary contribution", but in reality it was obligatory and rigorously controlled. With this statute the blind singers reached the position of autonomy while they kept on enjoying the use of some locales of the Casa Professa, with less than little approval of the Jesuits who would have liked them subject to the Rules of the Spiritual Congregations, limiting immensely their individual freedom. From then on the blinds and the Jesuits were always at odds.

   What we know on the modus operandi of the blind storytellers in Palermo and on their repertoire of the 1700 is from Villabianca: "…they used to sing and recite, on the streets, sacred prayers but profane songs too and, above all, improvised lyrics in the festivities of saints and "comic songs" in the profane festivities as: The Happy Horned (U Curnutu Cuntenti), The Story of the Poor Guy, The Tempter Devil, etc. The singers were also hired to play on the occasion of dances. In these cases they had a much greater repertoire which included The Neapolitan, The Little Devil, The English Girl, The Female Wage Earner, The In and Out, The Minuet, etc. The storytellers used to open the starting of the Puppet's Story (l'Opera Di Pupi).


Nonno Gregory
Nonno Gregory with violin
Photo: mid XIX Century


   Of all the many songs which the blind singers divulged, some were reporting news of recent date, becoming so a kind of "news teller" and "spreader of popular culture". In this sense, the stories and songs composed and divulged soon after1860, gathered by Salvatore Salomone Marino, are interesting. In those they sang The Pillage of Palermo, that of Carini, The Deaths in Milazzo, The Battle of Calatafimi, etc. becoming, in this case, true historian-poets similar to those of ancient Greece. While in the rest of Italy, from the medieval times to today, the picture of the blind singer cannot be found configured in the story-singers group, mixed as it is with the court singers, history-singers, buffoons and clowns, in Sicily, and particularly in Palermo, to the blind singer has been entrusted a peculiar tradition so much so that such picture, even after the many profane presentations, remains strongly tied to the occasions of religious character: prayers, novenas, sacred festivities, and keeps always as his instrument of choice the violin.

   The story of the Paladins was an exclusive subject of the story-singers together with the news story which they described with the help of vivacious painted boards, accompanying the story with the guitar, they moved from town to town in occasion of fair and festivities, making a living by selling also sheets painted with their stories. We cannot forget either that the existence of an organization solidly structured made, by statute, every new composition, religious or profane, subject to the judgment of the Board of the Counselors and of all the Confraternity, to the point that often the new compositions were fruit of an elaboration in popular key of a patrimony of literary knowledge, with much loss of spontaneity.

   The ability of a musical instrument was never spontaneous, but, even if learned by "ear", it was then followed by a diligent study under the guidance of a teacher. Within the congregation, however, never existed a real and true school. Probably the preparation was entrusted to the Casa degli Spersi (The House of the Lost), founded in 1617 and called of The Good Shepherd. This had been put up like an orphanage (forced) for poor children, together with blind children, that were taken out of the street to be educated and mannered. It really was not a pious house, because in that house violence and abuses were perpetrated. The pupils learned to play different instruments and to sing (for this reason emasculated, without anesthesia, because it did not exist yet, and without consent).

   In 1917 The College of the Buon(?) Pastore (Good Shepherd) was closed and from its ashes was born the modern conservatory. For the blind instead, in the 1800s, a school was explicitly founded by the priest Giovanni Crollo. Many poor blind children, by going to school there, for a year or more, acquired enough education and skill to put them in a position to make a living with their own work. This school, in 1892, thanks to the patronage of Ignazio Florio, became the Institute of the Blind, a true school where even today a literary, musical, and technical education is given.