The Martenitsa Tradition 

Martenitsa from Sofia region, 20th century (National Ethnographic Museum)

By tradition, on 1 March the Bulgarian people present one another and wear tiny red and white trimmings. These are known as martenitsas - named after the same month

March is a "female" month, according to the popular belief. The weather in March is much like the whimsical behaviour of women. It resembles the character of the folk goddess Baba Marta, an unpredictable woman - one day laughing, and the next day crying. In fact, 'Baba" means respected, skillful, experienced and wise elderly woman.  The folklore image of Baba Marta is an expression of the ancient people's awe of the Great Mother Goddess.

    Martenitsas are made of twined red and white threads - woollen, silk, or cotton. These threads are used to form tassels, pompons, circles, balls, squares, human or animal figures. Over the past several decades the tradition has been innovated by attaching all kinds of representations and symbols made of wood, leather, ceramics, metal foil or plastic to the thread-made martenitsas. Among these "trinkets" are miniature pistols, footballs, keys. Next to the representations of Mickey Mouse one could see Batman's mask, images of pop singers, or the signs of the Zodiac. If in earlier times the "production" of martenitsas was a home-based female occupation, nowadays it is a seasonal industry. What is more, sometimes the martenitsas are genuine works of art. 

    Martenitsas are pinned up or fixed in a similar way on one's left side - above one's heart, on the overcoat, the jacket, the dress, the pullover, etc. Everybody buys them to give them as presents to the loved ones, especially children. 

    According to an ancient legend, martenitsas bring health, happiness and longevity. Old-time Bulgarians believed there existed some evil force in nature called by them "loshotiya" /ill fortune/, which awaked, with the whole creation, in springtime; in popular beliefs 1 March marks the beginning of spring. Like amulets, Martenitsas were attributed a magic power believed to protect folks from "ill fortune", mostly from diseases and an evil eye. They are taken off on the sight of the first stork and are hung on a blossoming or green tree. 

    The red and white Bulgarian martenitsa could also be perceived as the Bulgarian equivalent of "Tai-Chi" symbol, the eternal Yin-Yang union. The white thread symbolized purity, chastity, and the red one - virile power. Their interweaving was a symbol of the harmonious bond between the feminine and the masculine principles.

    Certain beliefs link the introduction of martenitsas with khan Arparoukh and the year 681 when the first Bulgarian Kingdom was founded. According to one of these legends, when the old-time Bulgarians reached the lands beyond the Danube, they were enchanted by the place and decided to settle here. The khan wanted to make an offering to their pagan god Tangra to bless the newly founded kingdom. By tradition, the sacrificial fire had to be lit with a spray of dry dill, but it was  to be found nowhere around there. While wondering what to do, Asparoukh saw a falcon perched on his shoulder. The bird had a tuft of dill tied to its leg with a white wool thread, half tinged red. It was sent by Asparoukh's sister Huba, who, back in their father Kouber's palace, had had a dream about her brother's predicament. During the long flight, however, the falcon's  wing got  rubbed sore and blood soaked part of the thread. This was how khan Asparoukh got the dill sprig tied with a red and white thread. He lit the fire as prescribed by tradition and attached the thread onto his dress, to bring him health. Since then, it became a March 1 custom for the Bulgarian people to decorate their loved ones with an interlaced white-and-red thread.

    In the past, the tradition was somewhat different. It was not everyone but only maids and young women that would wear martenitsas. Decorated with martenitsas would also be fruit-bearing trees - apple-trees, plum-trees, etc., but not walnut trees.

    Some of the customs observed on March 1 that aim to drive away the evil forces involved making a bonfire and burning the garbage in the yard, after which everybody jumped over the live coals. Fortune-telling  was also popular. People used to choose a day between 1 and 22 March and judge about the whole year by the weather on the respective day - if it was sunny, the year was expected to be successful, if it was rainy and the weather was bad - the year was anticipated to be a difficult one. 

    Baba Marta's Day is celebrated as the name day of those called Martin, Martina, Marta, Dochka, Docho, Evdokia, Evdokim.;

    Outside the Bulgarian ethnic territory martenitsas are to be found only in some regions of Romania and Moldova, i.e. in places where there used to live or still lives a more or less compact Bulgarian population. Insofar as they are not known among the rest of the Slavs, martenitsas are probably a heritage of the Thracians, the ancient native population of modern-day Bulgaria.

    Martenitsas from Plovdiv region (Plovdiv Ethnographic Museum)




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