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29/30/31 January: the Merla days (hen blackbird), according to tradition are the coldest days of the year ~

8 min read

Originally written on January 2020 – Updated 2023

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 and ponds.
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 out 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. Of course, 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. Thus, 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 there, 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 at last, you too must be gone!”
January, offended and upset, did not seem to care much to the talk of the annoying bird. Sure of herself, the blackbird did not care and flew back to her land to wait for the arrival of the milder February.
However January, irritated by the blackbird’s behavior, he immediately went to see his neighbor, February, that was convinced to give him him three days. As a result, 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”!

The so-called days of the “merla” (hen blackbird) are, according to tradition and popular folklore, the last three days of January (29, 30 and 31, even though 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. It is a denomination that has its roots in very ancient stories and traditions. This is because we tend to identify “mid-winter days” as the coldest days of the year. The blackbird, is a bird that does not migrate and tends to remain on the site throughout the winter. In Italian the so called “merla” is the female blackbird. The bird, always according to popular beliefs, would have the ability to give an indication on the climate of the current year: if the days of the blackbird are cold, spring will be fine, if they are warm, spring will come later. This tradition is similar to others based on moon phases and the exit of the bear from its den as popular methods to predict the weather.

The legend of the hen blackbird days is lost in the mist of time, and has endless variations from place to place. However, one thing is common to all stories: the dates.
If freezing cold today is not a great concern any more, 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, 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.
According to the probably most popular legend, 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. When they emerged, on 1 February, they were all black because of the soot. Since then, as a sign of gratitude, white blackbirds accepted to be black, or, according to another version of the same story, being the only blackbirds left alive, since then all blackbirds were born black as coal.

Especially in northern Italy, in the Po Valley, many traditions are preserved related to this period of the year.
For example, 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, while in other places, the villagers meet around a large bonfire in the square (a bit like the bonfire where the Giubiana is burned, on the last Thursday of January), according to tradition are the coldest days of the year ~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.
Here the legend says that once there was a mild January, when all blackbirds were white. However the birds mocked January since winter was ending without frost and this angered January, despite it was the end of his days, took revenge by bringing in a freezing cold. For the great cold the white blackbirds had to take refuge inside chimneys, becoming all black.
In any case, 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!

According to a more elaborate legend, a blackbird hen with a splendid white plumage was regularly scolded by the month of January, cold and shady, 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 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 bird, thinking she had deceived bad and cold January, came out of hiding and began to sing to mock him. The month resented this so much that borrowed three days from February and broke loose with blizzards, wind, frost and rain. Desperate, the blackbird took refuge into a chimney and remained there for three days.
When she came out, she was safe, but her beautiful plumage had been blackened by smoke, and she would have had black feathers for ever afterwards.
Interestingly, as with all legends, there is a grain of truth: 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 last but also popular legend sees Merlo and Merla, blackbirds male and female, in the guise of two young spouses who, marrying as usual in the country of the bride who was beyond the Po river, were forced to cross the river to return to their home. After waiting three days with their relatives waiting for the weather conditions to improve and since there was no sign of improvement, they decided to cross the river on foot, which, given the great cold, was frozen. Unfortunately Merlo in crossing the river, died because the ice sheet did not bear its weight. Merla cried so much pain that her lament is said to be heard today along the waters of the Po river on the nights of late January. In memory of this sad episode, the young women of marriageable age went to the banks of the river during the three days of the blackbird to dance and sing a propitiatory song whose refrain says something like: “E di sera e di mattina la sua Merla poverina piange il Merlo e piangerá” (“and in the evening and in the morning her poor Merla cries the Merlo and she will cry.“)

Beside popular legends, stories and folklore….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.”)

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