Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

The days of the blackbird

There’s a popular name in Italy for the last three days in January. Giorni della merla – literally, ‘the days of the blackbird’, refers to the legend of a family of blackbirds and how the upcoming spring will be determined by the weather on these days.

Here’s how the story goes. Despite their name, blackbirds – or merla as they are sometimes known – were once all white. One harsh winter, a family of merla were taking shelter in the eaves of a building. Food was scarce because of snowstorms, and the mother and chicks were getting hungry. The male merla flew a long distance in search of food. To survive the cold, the mother and chicks took shelter inside a chimney and when the male returned three days later, he didn’t recognise them because they were covered in soot. From this day, all merla were born black.

Of course, being great story-tellers, Tuscans have another version of the tale. In this version, the white merla, tired of being taunted by the harshness of January, decided to trick her. One year, he gathered all the food he needed to survive the winter and spent the whole of January hiding in his nest. Back then, January only had 29 days. Once they had passed and failed to impede him, he broke free from his nest and let out a celebratory song, mocking January’s failure. In revenge, January stole three days from February and hit the merla with some of the harshest frosts, snows and blizzards imaginable. He took shelter in a fireplace, and when he finally emerged, he was not just hungry, but blackened by soot, and January had got longer.

Now, on the last 3 days of January, superstition says that if it’s cold, then spring will be warm and pleasant, if it’s warm, then spring will arrive late. So if you’re ever in Italy on giorni della merla, keep an eye on the sky.