If you travel to Bulgaria in early spring, you might be surprised to see something in the trees around you. Strands of red and white thread, bracelets, and maybe even dolls will be tied to tree branches in Bulgaria- sometimes there will be so many bracelets that you can barely see the tree beneath them! What’s the story here?
In Bulgaria, the first day of March is known as Baba Marta Day. Baba Marta, which is Bulgarian for “Granny March,” is a figure in Bulgarian mythology who symbolizes the month of March. She is typically portrayed as an elderly woman with a rather grumpy demeanor, and her moods account for the changeable weather that can be found in Bulgaria during March. When she is in a good mood, the sun is out, but grab your umbrella in case she gets grumpy!
Baba Marta’s arrival is a celebration, because she heralds the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Bulgarians celebrate her holiday on March 1st by wearing, and exchanging, martenitsi (or, singularly, a martenitsa) which are red and white-colored tokens that symbolize health and happiness, and act as lucky charms. They’re also thought of as a request for mercy, a hope that Baba Marta will remain in a good mood, and spring will come more quickly. They can be worn around the wrist, around the neck, or pinned to the wearer’s clothing. Sometimes the martenitsi are simple braids, but they can be more elaborate, even including little red and white dolls made of thread. The white symbolizes integrity, purity, and the melting snow, while the red symbolizes health, vitality, and the setting sun.
Traditionally, Martenitsi are special in that they can only be given as gifts; you’re not supposed to make your own! Many Bulgarians exchange martenitsi as a wish for health and prosperity. Because they are often given as gifts to friends and family, it’s not uncommon to wear many martenitsi at a time; children sometimes compete with their friends to see who can get the most!
The martenitsi are exchanged and worn beginning on March 1st, and are removed when the wearer sees either a stork, a swallow, or a blossoming tree, a sign that spring has truly arrived. There are many rituals involved in the removal of martenitsi, and they vary from region to region. In many parts of Bulgaria, the martenitsi are tied to a tree branch, to pass on the same health and luck to the tree that the wearer enjoyed. Sometimes the wearer will put them under a stone overnight, and check the hiding-place the next day. Depending on the type of creature found nearest to the martenitsi, a person can supposedly determine their health for the coming year (a larva or worm is good news; a spider, not so much.)
If you’re looking for a fun craft project, you can make your own martenitsi with nothing but red string, white string, and a pair of scissors; make a few with a friend so that you can exchange them! Here’s an excellent tutorial that will walk you through the steps to making a basic bracelet, or a pair of figurines:
Be sure to make extra, because you’ll want to give some away! After a long, cold, winter, we can all celebrate the beginning of spring!
Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski