THE DAYS OF THE BLACKBIRD (I giorni della merla)

There are a few Italian legends that say the last three days of January (29, 30, 31) are the coldest days of winter, thanks to the actions of a female bird.


Long, long ago in Milan there was a very hard winter and snow covered the whole city. Under the eaves of a building there was a nest of a family of blackbirds ,which at that time had feathers white as snow. Besides the parents, there were three baby birds. The little family suffered from the cold and struggled to find anything to eat, and even the few crumbs they found were immediately covered with snow. After a time, the father decided they should move the nest closer to the chimney, so he could look for food farther away from the nest, where there was no snow. The mother and the little birds stayed in the nest all day to stay warm, but soon were covered with the smoke from the chimney. After three days, the father returned to the nest, and was almost unable to recognize his family, as the black smoke from the chimney had changed all their feathers from white to black! Fortunately, from that day on, the winter became less rigid and the blackbirds were able to find enough food to get to the spring. From that day, however, all blackbirds are born with black feathers and the last three days of January are known as the three days of the blackbird.


In another tale, Tomie de Paola imagines how the Days of the Blackbird in northern Italy came to be. Gemma and her father, the Duke of Gennaro, live in a house with a courtyard that fills with birds of all colors through the spring and summer. Unfortunately, the Duke falls ill at the end of summer. He stays in his bed and is unable to get up; the only thing soothes him is the concert of the birds outside his window. One bird’s song in particular rises above the others- that of a pure white bird whom Gemma names La Colomba (Dove). But it is getting colder now, and every day more birds leave the tree outside the window. Gemma begs them to stay to raise his spirits with their song. and hangs warm baskets on the trees and puts seeds out to keep the birds from leaving. But soon, the birds fly south to stay warm, and eventually only one loyal bird remains, La Colomba.
It is the end of January, and the winter is at its coldest. Despite the frigid weather, la Colomba stays and sings for Gemma’s father, only stopping to rest in the chimney where she can keep warm. In the morning, Gemma discovers that La Colomba has been turned black by the soot. She is no longer La Colomba, but la Merla (Blackbird). But the coldest day has passed, and with warmer weather thanks to La Merla’s singing Gemma’s father begins to get better. But La Merla remained black as soot.


A long time ago it used to be that there were only 28 days to the month of January. A time when the blackbird was the color of white, white as the clouds in the sky, pure as the virgin snow. The blackbird and her family lived among the trees, in a nest made of grass and twigs, and every winter the family of white birds waited for the cold days to come to an end.
It was never easy in the cold season, they survived on small insects and seeds that lay hidden under the ground. Then it happened, one January, on the 28th day, the weary blackbird rejoiced and shouted to the heavens, “Lord, I don’t care about you anymore, winter is over!”

January, greatly enraged by this disrespectful outburst, asked his brother February to lend him three of his days. He turned the 29th, 30th, and 31st into the coldest of all the month, and the blackbird, filled with worry and fear, moved her family away from the trees, away to a stone chimney on the top of an old farmhouse.
For three days they huddled next to the chimney top. Three days of horrendous ice and cold. And when the first day of February appeared in a hopeful ray of sunshine, the blackbird and her family emerged, only to find themselves no longer white, but transformed to the color of night by the smoke and soot of the chimney. From that day on, the blackbird was always born black and February came to have 28 days instead of 31. (This is a legend, but in the Roman calendar January was shorter, while in the Gregorian its days became 31)

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