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Pork Chops & Blackbirds: Abruzzo’s Winter Weather Tales

by Alessia Odoardi

“Na vodd se dicev…” (“once we used to say”)

If you had the good fortune to be born in and be raised by your grandmother, you probably already know all the tales. If you have fallen in love with this enchanting region of Central Italy and want to learn more about it, here are some traditional sayings that will disclose more of the ancient magic that surrounds at wintertime.

Nonna Angela & Emilia

Winter could be very tough when you were a smallholder in Abruzzo and you had just a tiny field to feed a family and a small fireplace to warm an entire house. Our grandmothers, Emilia and Angela remember that very well. They grew up in two different villages in the Vomano Valley and they share the same secrets to predict winter. When I asked them if they remembered any sayings about winter, I almost couldn’t keep up with the flood of words!

“I giorni della merla” (the days of the blackbird”), as Nonna Angela remembers, is the way people called the last three days of January. They are the coldest days of winter according to the of several Italian regions. This saying comes from a very ancient story relating to blackbirds and how they became black, which has many versions: during the winter a blackbird and her chicks sheltered in a chimney pot to protect themselves from the cold . They waited there for three days; then, on the first of February, they came out but their beautiful white plumage had become black.

After those cold days, another traditional belief used to predict if winter was going to be long or short: “la Candelora”. This version of the rhyme is recited by Nonna Emilia:

“A li dò la Candelòr –  “On the 2nd la Candelora

a li trò la braciòl –  On the 3rd the pork chop

se ci nongue  – if it snows

se ci piòv –  if it rains

da l’immèrn sòm – fòr we’re out of the winter season

se ci sta lu sularìll  – if it’s a little sunny

stòm mmèzz a mmèrnarìll” – we’re stuck in winter”

According to different sources, the 2nd of February, the day of the Candelora, signified the end of the winter season to the rural world. If that day was rainy or snowy, winter was going to end, leaving its place to spring; but if it was a pale sunny day, then you would have to wait for spring a little longer.

Waiting to barbecue

When I asked nonna Emilia why they say “la braciol” (the pork chop), she told me that they used to have a big pork chop barbecue on the fireplace the day after (February 3rd).

La Candelora is also a day linked to the Roman Catholic tradition. Nonna Angela, who is a devotee, said that on this day a mass is celebrated and people bring candles with them (the word “Candelora” comes from the word candela, candle), which are symbols of Christ, coming to Earth to light up the whole world, and they are blessed by the Priest.

Winter had a predominant place in Abruzzo people’s lives: their harvests, their cattle depended on its mildness and length. Its end was very important to predict.

“li quattr brilland” (the four brilliants), as Nonna Angela calls it, was another important date to foretell if the cooler weather was going to end soon. The name probably comes from a wrong translation of the word a-brilent, which indicated “the first day of April when it was rainy”. The two versions they told me don’t match perfectly though: Nonna Angela says it’s the fourth of April, Nonna Emilia remembers that the saying referred to the first four days of April. Nevertheless, they agree on what it meant. “If it rains on “li quattr brilland” day, it will rain for forty days!”, Nonna Angela says, as she keeps embroidering her doily. This ancient belief can be found in different regions, not only in Abruzzo. Something more which underlines the importance of weather in ancient times; sayings and rhymes that grew from the ceaseless flow of time, with a beat by the seasons, weather, animals and the rising and setting of the sun.

Blackbird © Peter Austin

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Anita Flowers
Anita Flowers

What a wonderful tale from the two Nonna's …