Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blackbird Days

I giorni della merla 
The days of the blackbird

the female blackbird is in fact brown

In Italy, 'blackbird days' are three days at the end of January and the beginning of February, reputed the coldest in the year. The popular belief is that if they are indeed very cold, spring will be early and warm; if they are mild, spring will be late and colder...This is a bit of country lore I have heard locally in Chianti too.

Various folktales are associated with the so-called days of the blackbird hen - merla being feminine, this is a female of the species. The simplest and most pleasing could be narrated just so:

In the beginning, all blackbirds were as white as snow and prided themselves on their plumage. One day in the cold heart of winter, a mother blackbird and her chicks sheltered in a chimney for three frozen nights. When they emerged on the first of February, they had turned as black as soot. From that day forward, all blackbirds were black.

(This works better in Italian where blackbirds are called merli, which has nothing to do with the Italian word for black..) 

a white blackbird: perhaps this one did not hide in the chimney

Another more elaborate version is told as follows (my adaptation):

Once a long, long time ago, a beautiful little white bird found herself being persecuted by the spirit of January, that cold and gloomy month. Each time she left her nest in search of food January would send down Cold and Frost upon the land. Weary of this treatment, the little bird decided to hoard seeds and grains enough to see her through a whole month and huddled in her nest for the rest of January, which in those long ago times had only 28 days. On the last day, thinking she had fooled January, she came out of hiding and began singing her beautiful song, to tease the spirit of the month. January was so incensed that he borrowed three days from the month of February and heaped upon the land Snow, Frost, biting Winds and lashing Rain. The little bird hurried to shelter herself in a chimney, and was obliged to stay there for three extra days. When she finally emerged, she was safe, but her fine white plumage had been blackened by soot. That is why, to this day, the little blackbird is black.

Historical note: In the Roman calendar, January had only 29 days, a fact which might date the origins of this tale to some time after 45 BCE when the Julian calendar awarded two more days to January.


  1. A lovely, beautifully told and illustrated piece. Does the story apply to ravens as well?

  2. I believe we are free to elaborate our own legends; perhaps a raven is too large to fit in a chimney?

  3. You've made a fair and convincing point there. Ravens are certainly too grand for that kind of grubby treatment.

  4. Leitha -
    Love the blackbirds as chimney-sweeps! And here is a nice wine connection.

    "Merlot is a dark blue-coloured wine grape variety, that is used as both a blending grape and for varietal wines. The name Merlot is thought to be a diminutive of merle, the French name for the blackbird, probably a reference to the color of the grape."

    - Dan Baedeker

  5. Thank-you Dan for this; and perhaps in French legend the ur-blackbird had a dip in the wine?


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