The Merla Days

merlaThe so-called days of the "merla" (hen blackbird) are, according to tradition, the last three days of January (29, 30 and 31, although some legends speak about the last two days of January and February 1st) that are supposed to be the three coldest days of the year. In case these days are not very cold, it might mean that Spring will come later. This tradition is similar to others based on moon phases and the exit of the bear from its den as methods to predict the weather a few days after the day of Merla, or Candlemas.
The legend of the days of the blackbird is lost in the mist of time, and has endless variations from place to place. But one thing is common to all legends, the dates. The last three days of January, the coldest in winter, are just a kind of litmus test, relying on a single indicator to make predictions on the weather.
This freezing cold is not a great concern any more, thanks to central heating. But for our ancestors, who had to survive through icy winters with very little heat in the house, these were special days. Ancestral tradition (also supported by statistical evidence of weather cycles in Italy) identifies these days as the coldest period, after which, with the lengthening of the days and longer sunny hours, spring gets closer day after day.

The Blackbird (Turdus merula), is a bird that does not migrate and in Italy tends to remain on site throughout the winter. Blackbirds have a strong sexual dimorphism in their plumage, which is dark (beak included) in hens, while it is shiny black (with yellow and orange beak) in the cocks. In Italian the "merla" is the female blackbird. Anticipating the first signs of spring, the song of the blackbird can be deceptive: not always in fact indicates that warmer temperatures are actually along the way.

Blackbird hen (left) and cock (right)
Blackbird hen Blackbird cock

According to the many different legends, in ancient times all blackbirds were white. To find shelter from the extreme cold, a hen blackbird was with her chicks in search of a refuge. She saw a wisp of smoke out of a chimney and got in with her little ones. They emerged on 1 February, all black because of the soot. Since then, as a sign of gratitude, white blackbirds accepted to be black.

In 1740 Sebastian Pauli in his "Modi di dire toscani ricercati nella loro origine" (="Tuscan Idioms researched as to their origin", p. 341 Venice, printed by Simone Occhi) wrote:

"I giorni della Merla" in significazione di giorni freddissimi. L'origine del quel dettato dicon esser questo: dovendosi far passare oltre Po un Cannone di prima portata, nomato la Merla, s'aspettò l'occasione di questi giorni: ne' quali, essendo il Fiume tutto gelato, poté quella macchina esser tratta sopra di quello, che sostenendola diè il comodo di farla giugnere all'altra riva. Altri altrimenti contano: esservi stato, cioè un tempo fa, una Nobile Signora di Caravaggio, nominata de Merli, la quale dovendo traghettare il Po per andare a Marito, non lo poté fare se non in questi giorni, ne' quali passò sovra il fiume gelato."

[Translation:]"The expression Days of the Merla refers to very cold days. The origin of this expression is said to be as follows: Since they had to carry beyond the Po river a huge cannon, named Merla, they waited for the days when the river was frozen, so that the artillery piece could be carried over the ice reaching the other bank. Other people say that a long time ago, a Noble Lady from Caravaggio, named 'de Merli', having to cross the Po River to marry, could do that only in these days, shen she walked over the frozen river."


Getting back to the story, if the days of the blackbird are cold, spring will be fine, if they are warm, spring will come later. Especially in northern Italy, in the Po Valley, many traditions are preserved related to the days of Merla.

At Lodi the Merla is celebrated with choirs, located on opposite banks of the Adda river, that call and respond in a song called "La Merla," and the opening stanza of this Q & A says: " tra la ruca in mez a l'era, se ghe nigul se insirena " (throw the rock in the middle of the threshing floor, if it is cloudy it will get clear)

In the province of Cremona, where the days of the Merla are January 30, 31 and February 1, there are traditional events that recreate the ancient rustic environment. At Stagno Lombardo, Crotta d'Adda and Pizzighettone, Soresina, Formigara, Cornaleto, Pianengo and other places, the villagers meet around a large bonfire in the square or before a church or along a river, to sing along with the chorus dressed in peasant clothes (women with long skirts and shawls, men in cloaks and hats) and taste wine and traditional food. The lyrics differ slightly from one village to another, but retain the common themes of winter and love. Usually the chorus plays with the male and the female voices.

Here the legend says that there was a mild January once when all blackbirds were white. The birds mocked January since winter was ending without frost. This angered January that although it was the end of his days, took revenge by bringing in a freezing cold ... hence the saying "du te i do oen t'el prumetaro" (two I give you and one I promise) meaning that also February joined in the revenge. For the great cold the white blackbirds had to take refuge inside chimneys, becoming all black.

The peasants of Friuli used to watch the weather conditions of the three blackbird days and, according to the weather, made predictions about February and March. If the 29 was very cold and sunny, most of January had been cold but sunny, if the 30th was rainy and milder, most of the month of February would be rainy and temperatures milder.

In Sardinia at Scano Montiferro there is a saying "sas dias imprestadas" (= the borrowed days). The legend says that naughty and mischievous January wanted to freeze the ground and bring more snow, but having only 29 days he asked two more from February. "Frearzu, prestami duas dies, tales chi ponze nie, tales chi ponze biddia e frocca chi su pastore si 'occat!" (February, please lend me two days, so I can bring snow and ice and make the shepherd die of cold"). February agreed and so January got busy with snow and frost. All the sheep of the shepherd died from the cold, and the poor man could only save one repairing it under "unu labiolu", the copper boiler used to make cheese.


The moral of the story is always the same: Do not trust appearances and do not believe that winter is over because some days were less freezing than usual. This time-immemorial tradition appears also in the XIII canto of Dante's Purgatory - in the Circle of the envious, forced by the retaliation law to the punishment of blindness, as their eyes in life took joy in seeing the pain of others. Here Sapia, a Sienese noblewoman, says these words:
"gridando a Dio: Omai più non ti temo!
come fè 'l merlo per poca bonaccia".

"Crying out to God: Henceforth I fear thee not! / as the blackbird does with a little sunshine. "

The blackbird days also appear in the proverb:
" Du ghèj hò e 'n prestit, giù él troarò. Se bianca te sé, negra tè farò, e se negra tè sé, bianca deèntarè".
[Translation] "I have borrowed two cents, I'll find one more. If you are white, I will make you black, and if you are black, you will become white. "

A proverb from Romagna says: Mèral, 'd mêrz no' cantê', che e' bëc u t' s' po' agiazê. Lëssa ch'e' chénta e' ragiôn che lo u n'ha pavura d'inciôn.
[Translation:] O Blackbird, do not sing in March, that your beak might freeze. Let the Tordella (hen) sing, she is not afraid of anyone Still another proverb in the dialect of Bologna says:
Quand canta al mérel, a san fóra dl'invéren
[Translation:]When the blackbird sings, we're out of winter

The Merla legend

According to a more elaborate legend, a blackbird hen with a beautiful white plumage was regularly scolded by January, a cold and shady month, who enjoyed waiting for her to come out of the nest in search of food to throw cold and frost to the earth. Tired of this endless persecution, one year the blackbird decided to make provisions that would last for a month, and shut herself up for the whole month of January, which was then only twenty-eight days long.

On the last day of the month, the blackbird hen, thinking she had deceived bad January, came out of hiding and began to sing to mock him. January resented this so much that borrowed three days from February and broke with blizzards, wind, frost and rain. The blackbird took refuge into a chimney and remained there for three days. When she came out, she was safe, but the beautiful plumage had been blackened by smoke, and she had black feathers for ever afterwards.

As with all legends, there is a grain of truth, because in the Roman calendar from 713 BC to the introduction of the Julian calendar in 46 BC, the month of January was only twenty-nine days.

A longer version of the fable "The days of the blackbird hen"

It was a very, very cold Winter. That year the month of January put every effort to live up to his reputation as a freezing, windy month. The snow was high, and a layer of ice covered fountains, streams, ponds ... to the delight of children, who could enjoy skating and sledding on those mirror surfaces that reflected the rays of a pale sun.

Even the fire lit in every small and big house in the countryside, did not seem warm enough, in the bedrooms and in the attic, sometimes in the morning it was discovered that the chill night had even turned into ice the water in buckets and basins.

People walked numbly, went into the open as little as possible, trying to engage in hard jobs also to warm up a bit. During the dark evenings the lucky ones could afford to share a sip of Glühwein with family or friends in the warmth of their homes. "this January is due to pass.." they all would say, looking forward to the month of February: sure, winter would not be over soon, but it would become milder, less freezing, and everyone would start to feel the coming spring.

Not only men, but also the animals were going through difficult days, with all that cold and ice. It was a problem finding food, shelter from the wind, some relief ... you know, animals cannot light fires, or make Glühwein!

A female blackbird, restless and mischievous by nature, was feeling very nervous and could not wait for the cold to end ... cursing the month of January, one day she decided to visit him, to tell him what she thought of him and make of him because he was about to end. At that time, as a matter of fact, January was the shortest month of the year, only twenty-eight days.

She flew and flew, reaching at last the high mountain where that unkind month lived. Once here, the blackbird (who had a nice glossy black plumage and a yellow brightbeak, just like her male counterpart) began to tease the month of January: "You have made us suffer, with your ice and your wind, didn't you? Did you have fun? You made us shake for the cold and be hungry all these days, well, today it is the 28th, your last day! You finished haunting us this year, now February comes in and we can breathe ... at last, you too must be gone!"

January, offended and upset, did not seem to care much fo the talk of the annoying bird, did not answer immediately, but waited calmly for the blackbird to finish and then he warned her: "Be careful, because this is not the last word. " Sure of herself, the blackbird did not care and flew back to her land to wait for the arrival of the milder February.

But January did not give up: irritated by the blackbird's behavior, he immediately went to see his neighbor, February, he said and did so much that February was convinced to give him him three days: what were the first three days of February would become the last three of January. To spite those who had made fun of him, during those three days in January took his revenge.

The cold was so intense that even the breath froze in the air. The blackbird, repented of her presumption, could do nothing but try to find some relief near a smoking chimney. She spent all three days there and in this way was able to fight off the cold; after those three days, however, she took so much of that smoke that all her feathers, and even her beak had turned gray, and never got back as before.

For this reason, since then the month of February has become the shortest of the year, the female blackbird is smoky grey (while the male blackbird is black with a yellow beak) and the last three days of January, the coldest of all winter, are called "the blackbird days".