Martenitsa – a symbol of spring, health, peace and fertility
All over the world people meet spring with joy and new hope. but it is only in Bulgaria where it is saved as an ancient custom. The name of this festive day is Baba Marta in Bulgarian and means “Grandma March”. If you are walking along the streets in Bulgaria on the 1st of March you will witness many smiling faces. But first of all your eyes will be captured by Martenitsa.
In Europe many countries have a number of traditions, customs and national conventions. In Bulgaria there are some fascinating examples of those too, especially during spring time. One of the most specific Bulgarian traditions is observed in March by making “martenitsi” (plural) (Bulgarian: мартеници). These are small special ornaments, usually bracelets, made of strings: red and white woollen or cotton thread, woven into each other. Bulgarians tie these in a knot to one another’s wrist on 1st March primarily as a symbol of health, but also of strength, peace, love, fertility and good luck. They are the heralds of the coming of spring and of new life. While the white colour symbolizes purity and peace, the red is a symbol of blood, life and passion and thus, the item itself becomes a symbol of the new cycle in nature coming with spring.
The name “martenitsa” (singular) comes from the name of the month during which the tradition is observed – March. Therefore, the martenitsi are worn from 1st March and, according to the tradition – until the person sees a stork or the first buds of a blossoming tree – that is to say, until the official arrival of spring (or at least until late March). Once people see those spring symbols, they can take the martenitsi off. The ritual of taking off the martenitsa can vary in different parts of Bulgaria. Most people tie the martenitsi on a branch of a fruit tree, thus giving the tree health and luck. Others put it under a stone/rock and believe that the kind of insect closest to it in the next days will determine the person’s health for the rest of the year (for example, a worm or an ant is a good sign).
The shape of the martenitsi can be different. The modern martenitsa can take a wide variety of forms and often incorporates coloured beads and other elaborated elements. There are big martenitsi that can be used as decoration when hung on walls or doors in homes, schools, offices or other public buildings.
Another typical type of martenitsi are the ones that are made in the form of two small wool dolls – the folklore characters Pizho and Penda (Пижо и Пенда). Pizho, the male doll, is usually white, while Penda, the female doll, has a skirt and is usually red. However, the most widespread and traditional shape is that of a bracelet in red and white. The picture below shows the martenitsa of Pizho and Penda (Пижо и Пенда).
On 1st March, Bulgarians greet each other with the phrase “Честита Баба Марта!” (in English: Happy Grandma March!). It is believed that Baba Marta is a personification of the month of March (Bulgarian: март), while the word “baba” means “grandmother”. In Bulgarian folklore her name evokes a grumpy old lady whose mood swings rapidly. So Bulgarians have this kind of saying that because of Baba Marta’s female nature, the weather in March is so changeable and often unpredictable. The common belief is that by wearing the red and white colours of the martenitsa, people ask Baba Marta for mercy hoping it will make winter pass faster and bring spring.