Festive February in the Italian Language

Jan 29, 2017




Not many people have a classic comedy dedicated to their birthday. I do—although that’s far from February 2’s only claim to fame. This date may always signify Groundhog Day to fans of Bill Murray and believers in the shadow-fearing furry creature who put the little town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on the map. But in Italy, it marks the feast of La Candelora (Candlemas), which honors the purification (la purificazione) of the Virgin Mary.

According to Jewish tradition, after giving birth, women were not allowed to "touch any hallowed thing nor come into the sanctuary" for forty days. Candlemas falls forty days after (quaranta giorni dopo) Christmas–on February 2. 

La Candelora is also la festa dei ceri, with the blessing of the altar candles to be used in churches during Mass and other religious celebrations. Blessed candles were believed to protect against lightning strikes (fulmini) and hail (la grandine) and to comfort the ill (gli ammalati). 

Long before groundhogs got involved, Italians viewed il giorno della Candelora, between the dark of winter and the light of spring, as a good time to forecast the weather:  Quando vien la Candelora, de l’inverno semo fora; ma se piove o tira vento, de l’inverno semo drento. (When Candelmas arrives, we are out of winter, but if it rains or it’s windy, we are still in winter.)

Another saying looks ahead to the feasts that precede the long Lenten fast: Per la Candelora, chi non ha carne impegni la figliola. (For Candlemas, whoever hasn’t got meat—essential for Carnevale—should pawn his daughter.)

February 3 marks la festa di San Biagio (Saint Blaise), a doctor and bishop martyred in the fourth century and acclaimed for his miraculous healing ability and compassion. He is most famous for il salvataggio di un bambino che stava soffocando dopo aver ingerito una lisca di pesce (the rescue of a boy who was choking after having swallowed a fishbone).

On this day Catholics place their necks between a “V” formed by two crossed candles and receive a special blessing to ward off threats to their throats. In Milan, families eat the last of their Christmas panettone as a propitiatory gesture against the evils of coughs and colds. Others celebrate with special dumplings, meatballs, breads and sweets such as tarallucci of San Biagio, shaped like small donuts mixed with anise seeds, and cudduri San Brasi, cakes with hazelnuts and almonds blended with honey.

February's others feasts include la festa degli innamorati (the feast of lovers) on February 14 and the nonstop revelry of Carnevale (both subjects of upcoming posts). May you enjoy them all!

Sayings and Expressions

*Febbraio nevoso, estate gioioso – Snowy February, joyful summer.

*Corto febbraio: mezzo dolce e mezzo amaro – Short February: half sweet and half bitter.

*Primavera di febbraio reca sempre qualche guaio – A February Spring always brings some damage.

*Se la viola esce a febbraio, serba il pagliaio – If the violet comes out in February, conserve your haystack.

Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered.

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