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Celebrating Spring and Baba Marta In Bulgaria

The first of March is a big celebration for all Bulgarians. It signifies the end of a bleak, cold winter and the onset of a longed-for spring.

In days gone by it was a time where people wished for decent and plentiful crops. March 1st is marked with the celebration of ‘Baba Marta,' which literally means ‘Granny March.' In Bulgarian folklore, Baba Marta is thought of as a grouchy old woman with frequent mood swings synonymous with the weather of her namesake month.

The Martinitsa Legend

The wearing of the Martinitsa dates back to the days of Old Great Bulgaria, when the country was ruled by Khan Koubrat. Whilst out hunting his sons received news of their father's impending death and they were given a message to preserve the links between each of the different Bulgarian tribes. After his death Bulgaria was invaded by the Khazars, who kidnapped Kubrat's daughter Houba and her brother Bayan. The remaining sons went in various directions in search of a land without enemies, but they notified their brother and sister as to their plans and promised to send a golden thread tied to the leg of a bird whenever they succeeded in their task. Finally, one of the boys, Asparoukh sent a falcon with the thread tied to its leg and Houba and Bayan decided to escape. Unfortunately when they got to the River Danube they were cornered; Houba tied a white thread to the bird's leg and handing it to Bayanshe told him to let the bird go, but at this moment he was shot by an an arrow and his bloodstained the thread. The bird flew to Asparoukh and eventually the brother and sister made it there too, but Bayan was dying and Asparoukh tore pieces of the white-and-red stained thread into pieces and gave them to his soldiers to wear as a mark of respect.

Giving and Receiving Martinitsi

The day is marked with the giving and receiving of ‘Martinitzas;' red and white bracelets, brooches or key-fobs made from wool and twine designed to make Baba Marta happy and persuading her to get rid of the cold winter months and bring in the spring. Baba Marta is believed to be a grumpy old woman, and her unpredictable mood swings account for the fequent weather changes during this month, and also a reason men call it women's month! Everyone in Bulgaria gives these token to friends, family and loved ones and as they give them they greet people with the phrase "Chestita Baba Marta!" Bulgarians, particularly the young display their Martinitsi with great pride; for the younger generation the number of Martinitsi you receive is assign of how popular you are. Nowadays people even tie them to their pets' collars.

The Meaning behind the Martinitsa

Martinitsas are a way of wishing for good health, prosperity and in days gone by a successful harvest for the wearer. The Martinitsa represents everything to do with spring and renewal and it is synonymous with Mother Nature and the change in the seasons. The white thread signifies the melting snow, whilst the red denotes the growth in the power of the sun and the promise of warmer months to come. The threads are also meant to be representations of male and female and often you will see beautiful Martinitsas in the shape of a male and female doll, called Pigo and Penda.

The Search for a Stork

Martinitsi are worn until the wearer sees the first stork of spring. When this is spotted, the wearer should take them off and tie them to the nearest budding tree. When you visit Bulgaria in the spring, you will see many trees decorated with these white and red threads. The stork plays a key role in this ritual, because Bulgarian folklore associated the bird with the coming of the spring, and hence an indication that Baba Marta is content and has put an end to the winter weather.

Obviously spotting a stork is not easy in all parts of the country as they are mainly seen on the coast, so the ritual of taking off the Martinitsa varies from region to region. In some parts of the country, people put their Martinitsi under a stone in the belief that the insect closest to them the next day will establish that person's fortune for the year ahead. If the creature is a larva, worm or ant, the next year will be full of good health and success. However, an ant means that this will only be achieved through a lot of hard work. Spiders on the other hand are bad omens denoting poor health and bad luck.

Making your Own

It is easy to make your own Martinitsa and a great activity to do with children. All you need is some red and white wool. Tie the ends together, and either plait or twist them to form a bracelet. You can add beads and make it into a bow shape then thread it onto a pin to make a bracelet. Of course even in Bulgaria there is the commercial side to this tradition and martenitsi are on sale in most shops and can be purchased from as little as 0.50 leva to 4 leva depending on the design.

The Martenitsa is a cherished charm inherited by Bulgarian ancestors to mark the arrival of spring and better times to come and it's easy to see how this tradition has come about if you have experienced a Bulgarian winter and compared it to a Bulgarian summer!
Chestita Baba Marta!