The advent of March 1 in Bulgaria brings the moment that people exchange martenitsi, traditional talismans that bear wishes for good health with the coming of spring; and also the fanning out of municipal and tax inspectors to make sure that public coffers are getting their fair share of the trade.
The price of a martenitsa varies according to how elaborate it is. Simple red-and-white strings (often the bulk purchase of choice for those who anticipate having to exchange the charms with co-workers) may cost as low as 50 stotinki. More intricate and grandiose interpretations may range up to a couple of leva.
It is difficult to say with certainty just how much the business is worth, but it is certain that across the country, a lot of money changes hands as new interpretations of the old tradition are honoured. Sales points vary from ad hoc street stalls to more established businesses that want a cut of the action – 2012 sees convenience stores and other retail outlets getting into the act.
At this writing, no reliable figures were available for the number of places in Sofia that were selling martenitsi, but even in Bulgaria’s much smaller second city of Plovdiv, there were 500 traders licensed to sell them. More than two weeks before March 1, a few dozen municipal inspectors were on the streets of Plovdiv, checking aspects of sales from whether the seller was registered to whether stalls meant regulations about not obstructing pedestrian traffic.
In the Black Sea city of Bourgas, 118 martenitsi sellers had been licensed. The application fee was 30 leva and, on average, allowing for variations in size, the fee a day for a stall was about four leva. Illicit traders faced serious penalties – for individuals caught selling martenitsi without a licence, 1000 to 5000 leva, and for sole traders, 5000 to 10 000 leva.
Further down the scale of Bulgaria’s cities, Stara Zagora had authorised 180 tables and 212 martenitsa vendors, meaning that there was some sharing going on. The flat fee for a table was 100 leva for 20 days.
Tradition Not quite unique to Bulgaria, martenitsi have cousins elsewhere. In Romania and Moldova, they are called mărţişor in Romania and Moldova.
In Bulgaria, some claim that the tradition can be traced back as far as Thracian times, at least perhaps in the symbolism – frankly, a difficult argument to maintain given that latter-day interpretations of the red and white motifs of martenitsi vary. To say nothing of the fact that little if anything is known of the Thracian language, rendering it at least improbable that they were greeting each other with "Chestita Baba Marta," as Bulgarians do today.
These days, it is generally held that the the white colour of the tassel first symbolised the male, the strength and the sun. Later the tradition was influenced by Christian symbolism, and white started representing virginity and purity.
Red is the symbol of the female and health. It is also the colour of blood and symbolises birth.
Martenitsi are to be worn until one sees a stork, a swallow, a cuckoo or a tree in blossom. All these signify, according to Bulgarian tradition, that spring has arrived.
Baba Marta (Granny March) is not the only month with a personality. She has relatives: Golyam Sechko (January) and Maluk Sechko (February). Bulgarian National Radio related a folk tale in which the two brothers drank all the wine, including the casks belonging to Marta, which is why she is so capricious. For the uninitiated, a key aspect of exchanging good wishes at the start of March is indeed to keep Granny in a good mood so that she allows good weather (quite how Baba Marta’s control of the weather is reconciled with Christian belief remains a Bulgarian mystery).
Then there are Pizho and Penda, the male and female duo frequently depicted in yarn (who, when they are in the Dobrich region, change their names to Deshak and Racho). Depending on who you listen to, they either symbolise fertility or purity. Though, like many of the talismans on sale, examination may establish that they honour the more modern tradition, of being Made in China.
Such is martenitsa time, one that is time-honoured, pagan and perhaps, profitable.
Does not pose a threat to life on the planet. The Sun is entering an increasingly violent period of its normal 11-year cycle. This interval of high activity, known as the solar maximum, is expected to peak in 2013.
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