According to different ancient peasant traditions, January 29th, 30th and 31st are considered the coldest days of the year. The Candlemas, the feast celebrated on February 2 that traditionally marks the transition from winter darkness to spring light, comes shortly after, even if for Christianity it is also the day of the presentation of Jesus at the temple.
Both the Days of Merla and Candlemas were used by farmers to make predictions about the coming arrival of spring and the return to good weather. If they are beautiful days then spring will come soon and will have particular characteristics. If the days are cold then spring will be beautiful but if they are hot, or if it rains, then spring will come late.
Almost all the stories of the ‘Days of the Merla’ tell of white Merli birds that, to escape from the cold, took refuge in a chimney and became gray with soot. These legends would explain the difference between the gray color of the ‘merla’ feathers, the female blackbird, and the brilliant black ones of the male blackbird.
Another common point in many stories is the duration of the month of January, which changed from 28 days to the current 31 to annoy someone.
But let’s see some of the stories:
In the village of Santa Fiora it had snowed and all the fields were covered with white forcing the animals to find shelter. A couple of white ‘blackbirds’ sought shelter from the cold and saw a chimney with hot smoke. They decided then to enter the fireplace of this country house where they stayed for three days waiting for good weather. When finally the blackbirds came out, their feathers had turned gray.
According to local history it is said of a particularly hot January and the white merli birds were making fun of January that had not brought any frost. Then January, which was 28 days old, asked for three days on loan from February and let go a living hell of snow and cold. Here too the merli took refuge in a chimney and became black and gray. Even today in some areas of the province of Cremona a bonfire is lit in a square or by the river and songs and nursery rhymes are sung along with a good glass of wine and a hot dish. Folk songs often took place as a dialogue between a choir that plays the male part and one or more women.
Forlì and Cesena
In this area the legend tells of a white merla that had come out of the nest at the end of January convinced by the sun that the winter was over and instead found cold and frost and was forced to seek shelter in a chimney. The bird then became gray because of the fireplace’s soot.
Also here some variants tell of pranks made by January on the blackbird.
In Sardinia, the Days of Merla are on the 30th and the 31st of January and here too we are told of a particularly mild January that had convinced the shepherds of the arrival of spring. January was annoyed and asked for two days on loan from February, which then had 30 days, to unleash the cold and humiliate the shepherds.
The Sardinian legend is a bit ‘sadder and the shepherd loses all his sheep due to the cold except one that he had put in the copper boiler where he prepared the cheese.
Turning to the web there is also a passage from a book of 1740 written in Venice by Sebastiano Pauli (Tuscan sayings traced back to their origin) that tells its own story of the origin of the ‘Days of Merla) totally different from those known today.
“The days of the Merla” signify the very coldest days. The origin of that term is said to be this: having to pass over Po a heavy Cannon, named the Merla, waited for the opportunity for several days: until the River was all frozen, so that the carriage could be taken over, with the ice supporting enabling it to reach the other shore.
Others otherwise count: having been there, that was a long time ago, a Noble Lady of Caravaggio, name of Merli, who having to ferry across the Po to go to her husband, could not do it in these days, nor could she pass over the frozen river .”
We do not know what the real story is but I follow the words of my Friulana grandmother on Candlemas:
“Alla Candelora dell’inverno semo fora, ma se piove o tira vento dell’inverno semo dentro”.
“At the Candlemas feast in winter we go outside, but if it’s raining or is windy in the winter stay inside”.