Bulgarians welcome the month of March by wearing a bracelet of red and white yarn, which symbolises health, happiness, purity and blood.
While children in the Western world face the cruel reality by discovering the hidden “truth” about Santa, kids in the Balkans deal with a similar issue: the Grannie March. Better known as Baba Marta, the latter is a Bulgarian folklore image of March and symbolises the end of the cold days of winter and the advent of spring.
When I was five years old, I was excited by the prospect of the appearance of Grannie Marta in our kindergarten. I also remember that the red and white dress that Marta wore was remarkably similar to auntie Maria’s, one of my nursery teachers. That discovery led to the inevitable question, which was also the hardest: Is Grannie Marta real? That unbearable thought was also the first hit on childhood innocence.
This early rough lesson aside, the local folklore says that Baba Marta is the only sister of 11 brothers-months. The general idea is that she is an errant senior woman who sometimes gets angry and sometimes cheerful. That is why the weather in March is uncertain—sometimes sunny and warm, sometimes frosty and snowy.
Another folktale says that she is a nice old lady who wants to dispatch her grumpy brothers, January and February. However, her moody persona did not stop her from having an ice-free beach called Baba Marta Beach in Antarctica. The name of the Bulgarian mythical figure is one of the almost 1,400 Bulgarian geographical names in the icy continent.
Pizho and Penda
On March 1, people greet each other with “Happy Baba Marta’s Day!” and wear red and white bracelets called martenitsa. On that day, people gift each other with an adornment, a brooch but mostly a bracelet. It is a twisted thread of wool, one red and one white, whose main purpose is protection and good luck. Red represents the birth of life, and white is cleansing and novelty; it represents the cycle of life and the balance of good and bad times. Also, it describes Mother Nature; white is the melting snow, and red symbolises the sunset.
Likewise, there is another kind of martenitsa — two small dolls called Pizho and Penda. They are made from red and white yarn and are usually pinned on a garment. Pizho is male and made from white yarn and typifies strength and purity. On the other hand, Penda is female, red and symbolises health and fertility. This couple is an integral part of each martenitsa stall, which cheer up the streets starting every mid -February.
Keeping in mind the popularity of the custom, a vast number of people in Bulgaria wear them. Besides, it is in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and there is a Guinness World Record of the largest martenitsa in the world: made in Bulgaria and 16,704 metres long.
Senior Bulgarians believed that an evil force awakens in nature during spring; in folk beliefs, March 1 marks the beginning of spring. In the past, villagers tied a silver coin to children’s hands with a white and red wool cord to protect them from disease.
In ancient cultures of South-Eastern Europe, Spring was the beginning of the new year and also the agrarian year. In Ancient Rome, March was named after the god of fertility and agriculture, Mars. It is also believed that women in ancient Athens decorated the city’s sculptures with similar threads. According to an old legend, Thracians in the Bulgarian lands tied martenitsa. They wore them during the spring season. Another legend says it is associated with the founding of the Bulgarian state in 681 AD. The legend says that the first martenitsa was made by Ahinora, the wife of the state’s founder Khan Asparuh. She tied a red and white thread to a swallow’s leg and sent it to her husband, who was away, as a wish for health and welfare.
“Take the martenitsa, and give me health”
The martenitsa must be worn until the person sees the first sign of spring. The most popular belief is that the accessory must be removed when one sees a flowering fruit tree. Then, the removed martenitsa is tied to a flowering twig to ensure that the tree bears fruits. Moreover, the person has to make a wish while hanging the martenitsa. If you are lucky to be in Bulgaria during that season, you will see many trees adorned with martenitsas.
Another belief says that the martenitsa must be removed when a stork is seen. If the stork is in flight, everything will go well during the year. However, if it is on the ground, the next summer will be sleepy and lazy. In some places, it is still believed that when kids see a flying stork, they have to throw their martenitsa up at the flying stork and shout, “Take the martenitsa, and give me health.”
Other countries in the Balkans celebrate that custom as well. In North Macedonia, it is called Martinka, in Albania Verore. Romania calls it Martisor and even has its Baba Dochia (the Grannie Dochia). Although various names are associated with the white and red cord, people in the Balkans wear it hoping it will bring them good health and strength.
Despite political conflicts, economic crises, and the ongoing pandemic, such folktales offer an opportunity to feel and connect with heart-warming traditions of the past. Let us hope Grannie March will offer a better year this time.