The Italians are a colorful lot, with their customs, faith and rites. They seem to have a service in church for anything, a celebrative day for everything (including each and every saint that ever existed!), and traditions which need to be kept going through the generations, because otherwise great grandma will turn in her grave….. which of course is a good thing (traditions, not grandma!), because it makes Italy a difficult nation to standardize, to throw into the heap along with all the others. We are a population with a strong sense of identity, and we are very keen on keeping things that way. Indeed, if you were to stick an Italian amongst 10 people all of different nationalities, wouldn’t it be dead easy to recognize the one who is gesticulating like a demented chicken, using, in the process, a multitude of physical movements which would amaze even an expert in sign language?! Yep, that’s us! We could conduct a whole conversation without even having to utter a word, simply by exhibiting an elaborate repertoire of gestures with hands, fingers, arms and practically the entire body……it can appear like a comedy act to an onlooker, although we are pretty self-explanatory!
But back to customs; the mountain population tends to be more attached to traditions than city folk, because people still live in close contact with each other, and many families have their elderly living with them – the past generation, depositary of all antique rituals.
On the 13th of January, for example, in some places around the area, the “Trezendì” – the thirteenth day – is celebrated, and traditionally marks the closure of the “Calende”. Apparently, this cultural and historical recurrance has its origins in the antique custom of celebrating the “old” new year of the Julian Calendar, thus a kind of second new year. But what are the “Calende”? An empirical, rural way of forecasting the weather for the whole year; it is thought that each of the first 12 days of January will give us an indication of what to expect in the following 12 months. There is no scientific proof of the efficiency of this method, but farmers are very set in their ways, and like to at least take note of the climate in those days….sometimes it actually works! So on the 13th day,” trezendì”, once they have the year’s weather sorted out , families get together and cook up special pancakes called “frisou”, made with flour and water, and “padeletti”, another kind of pancake made with chestnut flour. It is a time to chat, exchange news and be together, something we have little time for these days.
And so the end of January looms, and with it, the three days which are called “i giorni della merla” – the blackbird days. These fall on the 29th, 30th and 31st, or the last two of January and the first of February, which are said to be the coldest days of the year. Statistics in the last decades seem to contradict this belief, but who are we to go against tradition?! There are different theories as to the origins of this saying, and one is this legend, published in 1740: “being it necessary to cross the river Po with a heavy cannon, nicknamed La Merla, it was decided to wait for these days, in which the river would be totally frozen, hence the machine could be dragged over it and hauled to the other side.”
Another legend says that a female blackbird and her chicks, originally black like the male of the species, took refuge from the cold in a chimney, from which they emerged on the 1st of February, covered in grey ash. From that day onwards, all females and chicks became grey. This is a cute fairy tale which justifies the fact that female blackbirds and chicks are a browny-grey color, whereas males are a brilliant black. Highly unlikely, but we prefer this romantic version just the same!
And last but not least, the “Candelora” (Candlemas Day) falls on the 2nd of February: “Per la santa Candelora se nevica o se plora dell’inverno siamo fora” is the popular proverb which comes easily to any elderly person. A rough translation would be ” On the saintly Candlemas Day, whether it snows or rains – we are out of the winter”. The word “Candelora” derives from the Latin “Festa Candelorum”, the antique rite of blessing candles before taking them into holy procession. In pagan times, the candles were preserved by the people at home, in order to ingratiate themselves with various divinities, ensuring protection during epidemics, catastrofical weather disasters, for sick family members, or for members far from home. Nowadays, lighting a candle, usually in church, is simply a sign of christian devotion.
According to popular belief, the 2nd of February is also a good day for making wishes for the future, and predicting a good crop. And, considering this from a technical and agricultural point of view, it actually is fundamental for wheat and grapevines that the weather conditions be favourable in certain phases of development.
And the colourful (and meaningful) traditions go on and on…….