Baba Marta, or Granny March, represents the advent of spring. After a harsh winter she is welcomed with open arms on March 1. The celebration is steeped in years of history and tradition with some interesting legends surrounding its origins and the wearing of those red and white bands called martenitsi.
The story behind Baba Marta
Baba Marta is a pagan tradition borne out of the days when heathen peasants believed in higher forces at work affecting the weather, fertility and successful crop growth. Pagans worldwide celebrated the coming of the spring each year, thousands of years before Christ's birth. Spring was renowned as a time of renewal and fertility representing new life and a fresh start after the cold winter. In reality, this meant that food was scarce during harsh Bulgarian winters and people worshipped the spring in the hope that it would bring clement weather suitable for sowing and tending crops. Spring is also the season of fertility and new life, a time when animals reproduce and provide more food for hungry families.
In Bulgaria, "mart" is the word for March and "baba" means grandma. In old folklore "Baba Marta" was portrayed as a volatile and moody woman. It is believed that when she was happy skies were blue and the sun would shine, but when Baba Marta was disgruntled, she would bring rain and wind to the country. People still believe that Baba Marta only visits clean and tidy homes and spring-cleaning is another part of the Baba Marta celebration. At the end of February, people clean their homes from head to toe; in bygone days this frenzy of cleaning represented a clearing out of all old and infertile things from the past year. Folklore also states that Baba Marta liked to see young girls on March 1, so old people would stay indoors in order not to offend her.
The colours of the martenitsa
These symbolise many things. Some say that they are the colours of Mother Nature. The white wool represents the melting snow and the red twine represents the setting sun, which becomes more and more intense as spring advances. Other associations of the martenitsa's colours are that the white symbolises man and the red woman, or that they represent purity and life or health and strength. Many centuries ago, a martenitsa was regarded as an amulet to protect the receiver from evil and many people still quote the old saying that "if you don't wear your martenitsa, Baba Marta will bring evil to you".
Legends and myths
Many legends and myths abound of how the martenitsa's colours arose. One of them is the story of Khan Koubrat, the founder of Bulgaria, who was nearing the end of his life. He knew this and asked his sons to vow to keep the various Bulgar tribes together to defend the country. However, soon after Khan Koubrat's death, their land was invaded by the Khazars. They took over the capital and kidnapped Khan Koubrat's daughter, Houba. Of the five sons, one, Bayan, joined with the Khazars in an attempt to stay with his sister. Another, Kotrag, moved northwards and the other three, Asparoukh, Kouber and Altsek, looked south for land away from their enemies. These three had arranged that if they found land then they would send a bird with thread tied to its leg to Bayan and Houba. Eventually, the imprisoned pair received the bird and tried to set off secretly, but the Khazars soon found out and followed them. Bayan and Houba didn't know the soldiers were so close and were about to return the bird with the white thread attached when Bayan was wounded with an arrow, fired by the Khazars. Dripping blood onto the white thread, Bayan still managed to release the bird and they painfully continued their journey to find their brothers. When they finally met their siblings, Bayan was nearly dead. Asparoukh welcomed the dying man, tore pieces of bloodstained white cloth into small strips and gave them to his soldiers to honour brave Bayan.
Other myths tell another story about Khan Asparoukh, founder of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. According to this legend, the Bulgarians reached land beyond the Danube and decided to settle there. Khan Asparoukh was happy at his find and wanted to offer the pagan God, Tangra, a gift to bless the new kingdom. By tradition, a sacrificial fire must be lit with a sprig of dry dill, but there was no dill around. While pondering how to please Tangra, a falcon perched on Asparoukh's shoulder. The bird had a sprig of dill tied to its leg with a white woollen thread, half tinged red. The dill had been sent by Asparoukh's sister Houba, who had dreamt of her brother's dilemma. During the long flight, the falcon's wing was rubbed sore and soaked part of the thread in blood. Asparoukh lit the sacrificial fire and attached the thread onto his clothing to bring him health.
Another legend states that this ritual honours Mars, the god of war and spring. Bulgarians have had a troublesome and war-weary history and it is said that conflicts often started at the beginning of March. As warriors left their wives to go to fight, womenfolk gave their husbands red and white strips of cloth to tie round their wrists. Some gave small woollen figures of a girl and a boy. The colours represented the blood of the warriors and the pale faces of the women they were leaving behind.
The tradition today
Little has changed in the celebration of Baba Marta since those days hundreds of years ago. On March 1, Bulgarians give martenitsi to their family, friends and neighbours. This may be in the form of a simple bracelet of entwined red and white wool or a brooch of red and white wool tassels. Front doors are decorated with enormous red and white pompoms or with woollen dolls called "Pizho and Penda". Pizho is the male doll and is usually crafted from white wool. Penda is the female, red doll and is distinguished by her skirt. Animals are also adorned with their own special martenitsa. Young people, in particular, can be seen with a wrist full of red and white bracelets.
The designs and materials used have changed somewhat, adapting to suit new tastes and modern materials. Martenitsi used to combine silver coins, beads, garlic, snail shells and horse hair, but today they incorporate fancy beads and popular children's characters like Spiderman or Barbie. Many schoolchildren still make their own martenitsi, but most people purchase them from street sellers and the whole event has become far more commercial. Martenitsi are worn until Baba Marta shows the first sign that spring is truly here. This may be in the form of the first stork or the green buds on a fruit tree. Once spring has revealed itself, the martenitsa is hung from the branches of a budding tree and people make a wish. This act is said to make the tree strong and healthy. Some people put their martenitsa under a stone with the idea that whatever the nearest creature to it, the next day will determine the person's health for the rest of the year. If the creature is a larva or a worm, the forthcoming year will be healthy and successful. The same luck is associated with an ant; however, the person will have to work hard to achieve success. If the creature near the token is a spider, then the person is in trouble and will be lacking in luck, health, or personal success for the next year.
In schools and nurseries there are plays with old women acting out the parts of the months February to April and children recite songs about Baba Marta.
Traditional craftsmanship lives on
Irina Kudelina, a Russian woman who has spent the last 20 years living in Sofia, has been making martenitsi to sell for the past five years. With a qualification in art, she has always been creative; she learnt how to make martenitsi as a hobby - something to keep her hands busy while enjoying a cup of coffee and her favourite TV programmes.
She describes the manufacturing process as long for a one-day event: "I start in December and finish making them around the middle of February, then I must sell them all." Irina makes about 300 bracelets each year, which take about an hour to complete, and about 50 large martenitsi from a variety of different materials including wool, silk, cotton and nylon. The choice of material depends on the design. Pizho and Penda are the largest designs and Irina says they take her, in general, three days to complete, depending on her humour: "I make them all unique. Each one is a little bit different to the other. Each year I try to bring out a new design, but I always keep true to tradition."
Her favourite design is the "kozounachna pletka", because "it is the foundation for a great creative design". It is also one of Irina's most popular products. Irina's son starts selling the martenitsi in February at the street market around Slaveikov Square in Sofia. He sells the bracelets for 50 stotinki to 2.50 leva each; the larger designs cost up to 20 leva each. The bracelets seem to be the favourite items, bought by young and old alike. Foreign tourists looking for an exclusive souvenir from Bulgaria decide to take home many of the larger designs and more ornate bracelets.
Irina says the martenitsi have changed a lot over the years: "The attitude towards colour and design has changed. The martenitsi are still red and white, but nowadays we incorporate coloured beads and there are many more designs."
Annie Dimitrova sells martenitsi every year at the street market in Varna. "I have done this for the last eight years, and I love it because it is such a special time in Bulgaria."
Annie sells a wide variety of bracelets, brooches and larger designs suitable for decorating the front door or gate. Her selection is a mix of work from local artisans and imports from China. "You can spot the work from China because it is more commercial. The designs have things like Spiderman and Yu-Ghi-Oh, which appeal to the little kids. This year some have EU emblems on them."
Annie prefers the work by local craftspeople, but admits that there is more profit in the Chinese-made martenitsi: "I sell all of the bracelets and brooches for one lev regardless of where they are made, so if I sell the Chinese designs I make more money," she says. She sells, on average, several thousand brooches and bracelets a year to a variety of age groups, although young people are her best customers because they buy many for their school friends. Annie says that with basic designs, it is hard to tell which martenitsi are hand-made and which stem from China. The thicker and more intricate designs, however, are better made by the Bulgarian craftspeople. "The Chinese martenitsi use cheap material. Even the brooches are harder to pin on," she says.The future of Baba Marta
This time-honoured tradition is kept alive each year by the sheer volume of people who support it and is likely to live long into the future on a par with other celebrations like Valentine's Day and Halloween. Commercialism perpetuates the celebration by bombarding people with martenitsi and late greeting cards. However, sadly, commercialism comes with a cost and that is at the expense of local artisanship. Baba Marta is part of the rich Bulgarian heritage and to this end I will be doling out home-made martenitsi to all and sundry, secretly hoping that it will rid us of this dreary winter and bring hot weather, ideal not only for vegetable growing, but for sunbathing! Chestita Baba Marta!
Countries with similar traditions
Few people realise that Bulgaria is not the only country in the world celebrating the advent of March and the coming of spring. Many countries around the globe have spring rituals, including Poland's creation of a straw doll, which is thrown into water. However, some countries have traditions closely linked to the giving and wearing of a martenitsa.
Neighbouring Romania also celebrates the first day of March with a celebration known as martisor. The custom is said to have its roots in Ancient Rome - the Romans celebrated the New Year on March 1 by paying homage to Mars, god of war and agriculture. Romanian men offer Romanian women a jewel or decoration tied to a red and white string. There are many variations of these such as flowers, animals and hearts. Anyone who wears the red and white string will be powerful and healthy for the coming year. The martisor is worn for 12 days.
Moldova's celebration is very similar to that of Romania, except that people give each other a gold or silver brooch on a red and white string, which they pin to their lapel. After 12 days, traditionally, they buy sweet cheese (in olden times they used the medal to purchase the cheese), in the belief that their faces would be beautiful and white for the year to come.
In Greece, people braid bracelets called martis from red and white string and give them out to children on March 1. Folklore states that if children wear the martis the sun of early spring will not burn their faces. The bracelet is symbolic of rosy cheeks and a white complexion. Martis are worn until the midnight mass of the Greek Orthodox Easter. On this day, bonfires are lit and the bracelets are removed and thrown into the fires.