BABA MARTA DAY (the "Martenitsa" Day) - March 1

If you by any chance visit Bulgaria on the first day of March you are certain to notice almost every person decorated with small tokens made from red and white woollen threads. Then from late March to mid-April, you will notice many fruit trees and shrubs decorated with these same tokens.

March 1st is known as the "Baba Marta" Day in Bulgaria – so, on the very March 1st, as well as the days following, all people give each other red-and-white tokens in the form of strips, ornaments or a pair of small woollen dolls, traditionally called “Pizho” (the male character) and “Penda” (the female one), also known by the name Martenitsas.

According to tradition, Marta (the female of the word “Mart”, the BG version of March) is an angry old lady who rapidly changes her mood from worst to best and back again. She is popular all around Bulgaria as "Grandmother Martha" (or "Baba Marta" in Bulgarian ). According to the typically Bulgarian belief, spring comes with the arrival of “Baba Marta”. Her dual image of both merry and mischievous, of simultaneously approving and denying character, represents the woman as the beginning of life as well as the elemental devastating beginning at large.

March is traditionally believed to be the only “female” month of the year - the month of conception of spring, the month of  land giving birth to summer and fruitfulness. The red-and-white woolen token called “Martenitsa” [mar-te-‘ni-tsa], after the name of the month “Mart” is the very sign of the coming March - the symbol of the wakening of the earth for a new life as well as the cult to the Sun.

The white color of the Martenitsa initially symbolized the human nature, the strength and the light solar zone. Later influenced by Christian mythology, it became the symbol of virginity and virtuousness – the white color is the color of Christ. The red color in the Martenitsa was chosen to represent health and the woman’s nature - it is a sign of blood, conception and birth. The women’s wedding dresses and traditional costumes used to be red once upon a time.

Traditionally, the Martenitsa has always been a unique amulet that was believed to provide protection from the powers of evil. The wearing of a Martenitsa used to be a kind of a magical ritual act: the twisted white and red woolen threads protected the person from the mechanisms of black magic.

March 1st is the name day of everyone named Martha, Martin, Martina.

THE TRADITION:

In the morning of March 1st the housewives used to hang out red aprons, belts, rugs or twisted threads in front of their houses as protection against illnesses and poverty. When Baba Martha, symbolizing the spring month of March, would see them she would start laughing and that way make the Sun shine bright again.

The women were supposed to twist white and red threads together, thus producing Martenitsas, which they later gave to all members of the family to wear. The Martenitsa must be twisted in the same way as young unmarried women “twist around” the bachelors. The married women should place their Martenitsas on the right side of their chests, the single ones - on the left. The bachelors were supposed to wear the Martenitsas with their ends spread, while the elderly ones - on the contrary, should make sure their Martenitsas are well and neatly arranged, so that they wouldn’t fly around during partying.

Generally, the Martenitsa is believed to preserve the person wearing it from any bad luck or illnesses. Once the owners of the Martenitsa have seen the first stork – the symbol of  the spring, they must take their Martenitsa off and hang it on a blooming tree. The different areas of Bulgaria offer a different vision of that tradition – according to another one people should leave their Martenitsas under large stones only to return nine days later and see what they would find underneath it - if they found ants that meant the year would be rich of sheep, if they found larger bugs, then they would have more cows that year. Other people have the tradition of throwing their Martenitsas into the river, so that their lives run smoothly and they escape from all hardships of life.

In some parts of the country the first week of March is called the “Counting Days”, which are supposed to determine what the weather would be like all through that year. There is also another custom – the “Picking of a Day” custom – people are choosing a day of the month of March, and then are waiting for this day to come in order to see if it would be sunny or rainy, cold or warm, as their lives would be during the whole of the year.

Young mothers and children tie a Martenitsa around their wrists. The white thread in the Martenitsa promises long life while the red one is a means of protection against illnesses and is supposed to give health and strength, so cherished at the end of the winter season when the power of life has depleted.

The story of the Martenitsa:

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There are many traditional beliefs and stories regarding the orogin of the red-and-white symbols of the Martenitsas – the most popular being the following one:

More than a dozen centuries ago, the proto-Bulgarian ruler Khan Asparukh (also known as Khan Isperikh) left his home in the distant Tibet Mountains in search of new fertile land for his people to live on. He passed through many rivers and mountains until he finally reached the lands of the Slavs, who accepted him and his people as dear guests. Slav women, wearing white outfits, would bring drinks to the tables full of food – samples of everything that grew on that blessed land. But the Khan did not enjoy it, he was sad and homesick as he missed his mother and his dear sister Kalina. He sat by the huge river running in that distant land and tears ran down hid sunburnt face, while he prayed to Gods and the Sun for some miracle to happen.

And it did happen! A swallow landed on his shoulder and the Khan shared all his sorrow with it. Then the swallow flew away, back to the lands the proto-Bulgarians came from, and with a human voice it told Kalina, the Khan’s sister, that her brother found a new land for his kingdom but he was missing her much and was sending all his best feelings…

Kalina was very happy to hear that – so she decided to send her brother a token that she had received the news. She made a small bunch of some green bush leaves, which she bound with a white woollen thread, and then made knots at the end of the thread as a greeting sign – and she sent the swallow to take that bunch back to her brother.

The swallow flew fast as lightning and very soon it landed back on the Khan’s shoulder again. But due to the long flight its wing got hurt and some blood drops dyed the white woollen thread. The Khan was so happy to see the green bunch, he understood his sister’s greeting by the knots she had made, and so he pinned the bunch on his chest. The Khan ordered his men each to put a small bunch of twisted red-and-white thread on that day each year – for health and heavenly blessing. That happened on the first day of March, and has remained a tradition ever since.

According to Bulgarian tradition, each morning on the first day of March, a fire has to be started in the backyard of each house, with plenty of smoke. Then everyone living in the house has to jump over the fire three times, facing the rising sun, to clean off any evil spirits and keep all illnesses away. The mistress of the house should take out some red clothes and fabrics and flings them onto the tree branches and onto the fence. Then she decorates the young kids and the newborn animals with Martenitsas she had prepared herself from woollen or cotton threads.

The traditional Bulgarian Martenitsas had various additional objects woven into them – coins, dry garlic cloves, blue beads, iron rings, hairs of horse’s tail, snails’ shells – therefore people always believed the Martenitsas to be special kinds of tokens supposed to keep all the evil spirits away.

According to oldest traditions, children are supposed to carry the Martenitsas on their right wrist, on their neck (as a necklace) or on their chest, while the young unmarried or the newly-wed women – on their neck or woven into their hair. Men are allowed to carry their Martenitsas over their left elbow or over their left ankle (i.e. to remain unseen!), while in some regions men are expected to put them into their left shoes, right under the heel – due to the belief that if someone saw them wearing a Martenitsa tied on their wrist, then their masculinity could be tied up too...

The old-time traditions and beliefs have been preserved all through the centuries, although today Bulgarians wear the red-and-white tokens with the belief to just please Baba Marta - so she will not make us cold. In doing so, we are expressing the hope that the warm spring will come as soon as possible.

Once we have had our Martenitsas pinned on our clothing or tied around our wrists (it is usually the right wrist we are supposed to put the Martenitsa on), we have to keep them there until we see some sign of spring - such as a crane or swallow, or a blossoming tree. Only after seeing that sign,do we remove the Martenitsas, as only then we know for sure that spring has truly arrived. After seeing a crane or swallow, or a blossoming tree, we are supposed to tie our Martenitsas on a fruit tree, and make a good wish, which is believed to always come true.

Enjoy the feast of spring with your red-and-white tokens – the wonderful Martenisas!