For every Bulgarian, March 1 is the day of what are known as Martenitsi. They
are an ancient ritual symbol of the in-coming
The white thread of the Martenitsa reflects the
whiteness of the snow, which is already growing thinner and thinner, and the
purifying power of the new spring season. The red thread, in its turn, is a
symbol of the scarlet Sun which is re-born after the winter and is once again
filled up with a new vital energy. Interwoven, the white and the red threads
concentrate the invigorating powers of nature to pass them on to people, fruit
trees, cattle, houses and farming tools. Everything which is a source of
prosperity is decorated with a Martenitsa on March 1. This unique Bulgarian
custom stirs festive mood on the first day of the spring month even nowadays.
Once, the oldest woman in every home would make the Martenitsi the night
before March 1 and at the break of dawn she gave one to everyone in the
family. Today, people buy Martenitsi. Long before the holiday, as early as
the middle of February, the city streets go motley because of the numerous
stands piled up with various Martenitsi. The traditions of creating home-made
Martenitsi, however, is coming back to life. At first glance,
Martenitsas are a simple thing – intertwined white and red thread. According
to custom, on the first day of March every man woman and child pin such
Martenitsas onto their clothes.
Tradition has it that in some parts, the
martenitsa is tied around the wrist of children and unmarried girls, while men
wear them on the pinky of their hand or hide them under their sock on in their
waist-band. In other regions, women pin their Martenitsas onto their bosom –
the unmarried girls on the left, and the married women on the right-hand side.
Thus, anyone could see whether the woman was married or not – and this as a
warning to the lads. In some parts, unmarried lasses used to make Martenitsas
especially for their betrothed. But the most important message the martenitsa
conveyed was that it will bring health and vitality to the person wearing it
throughout the year. According to ethnologists, the martenitsa can be traced
back to ancient times, when it was an amulet, with magical properties,
protecting its owner from evil forces and calamities. Nowadays no one takes
this superstition seriously. But everyone still puts on a martenitsa on March
the first, with wishes for health and good luck.
The custom is for everyone to
give friends and relatives a martenitsa. And on the first day of March, people
count the number of Martenitsas they have received – because they are a symbol
of the love of numerous friends. According
to the ancient tradition in some regions, then martenitsa for all members of
the family have to be made by the eldest woman of the household. In other
parts, it is the unmarried girls who make the Martenitsas early, before
sunrise on March 1 – so that the Sun may see them as soon as it rises. Other
rituals have it, that the martenitsa must have been made on the eve of the
first day of March. After that they are tied to a rose bush in the yard and
left overnight, so as to be filled with magical powers. From the thorns of the
rose, the martenitsa is imbued with the power to drive away calamities and
evil, and from the stars and the sky – with the life-giving force of spring.
But why does the martenitsa
combine the colours red and white?
There are various interpretations. But
there is no doubt, that the red in Bulgarian folklore symbolizes the sun and
its power to give life. So that Martenitsas are a welcome sign for the coming
of spring, the new sun, and the resurrection of life in nature. But there is
one more ritual, addressed to the spring sun. Once, before daybreak on March
1, the women of every home used to bring out and hang red-coloured clothes and
fabrics out on the fence. The colour red was a way to welcome the sun itself.
While the sun on its part, then re-charges the red fabrics and clothes with
its own powers. And while welcoming the spring sun, the girls would already be
thinking of the summer heat. While the older women would remember the words of
the spells of old, which they had once uttered, while intertwining the red and
white threads. With these spells, the girls would “tell” the Martenitsas to
protect their owners from the burning summer sun. Traditionally, even though
they worked in the fields, women’s faces had to be white. And it was said of a
beautiful women that their faces were “red and white” – i.e. a face that is
not burnt by the sun, but has radiant red cheeks.
According to an old belief, March is the only month thought of as a woman.
Martha is the only sister of the 11 brother-months. She is called Old Martha.
In some regions, however, she is said to be a beautiful maid who goes
out in the woods, crying out loud: "Go away, winter, let the summer set in."
An old lady or a girl, Martha is proverbial for her rapidly changing moods.
Legend has it, this is what determines the weather in March - if Martha is
angry, the weather goes very cold, when she is marry, the weather is sunny and
pleasant. That is why, Martha should be
welcomed and pleased with the Martenitsi and with red woven cloths, spread in
the open air. Traditional beliefs say that Martha smiles only if she first
meets young boys and girls. That is why, once, older people would stay at
home on the morning of March 1, while the young rushed outside. Before going
out, they would take a loaf of bread, so that a rich harvest was born that
year. They also took something gold or silver, so that they should be rich
and distinguished. The first thing they would see in the yard predicted their
luck through the year. That is why, the young would go out their home with
their eyes closed so that they should be vital and happy and they could get
ahead with their work.
Although astronomically the spring sets in on March 22, the traditional folk
calendar says it begins on the first day of March. A folklore song
accompanying rituals dedicated to meeting Martha tells about the vernal
equinox and the Sun. The ritual fires which are made on that day
symbolise the Sun. Those fires are said to burn the
evil powers which are hidden in
the litter ritually cleaned up and taken out of the homes and the yards before
sun-rise on March 1. The purifying power of these fires is said to bring
health to every man who jumps over the flames. That is why the ritual
lighting and jumping over fires is performed many times during the spring -
from the first Sunday before
Lent till the end of March.
In some parts of Bulgaria, small groups of boys would once go around the
houses in the village. They would make a fire in each yard and would
jump over it clanging the bells they had with them. Thus, old believes
say, the evil spirits huddled in the most
secret nooks of the
home were chased away.
older times, in Bulgaria and in other Balkan and European countries, there was
another custom, a new fire was lighted on March 1 by rubbing two sticks
against each other. The ritual was presented in old drawings by a cross.
It would symbolise the fire and the Sun in folk culture. The women would cross
themselves before taking to the ritual house cleaning on March 1. Later in the
spring, when the men went for the first time after the winter to plough the
field, they also crossed themselves always facing the sun-rise This connection
between the man, the Sun and fertility and prosperity would be further
strengthened in the next months via many spring rituals.
wishes for health addressed to the spring sun and the awakening nature are all
embodied in the martenitsa. Bulgarians today are hardly likely to be aware of
all of these “magic” meanings of the Martenitsas. But they wear them with
pleasure and with the hope of health. By a tradition, the martenitsa is taken
off when the first trees come out in bloom, or when one sees the first swallow
or stork of Spring.
The name day of everyone named Martha, Martin, Martina.
If you by any chance visit Bulgaria on the first day of March you are certain
to notice almost every person decorated with small tokens made from red and
white woollen threads. Then from late March to mid-April, you will notice many
fruit trees and shrubs decorated with these same tokens.
March 1st is known as the "Baba Marta" Day in Bulgaria
– so, on the very March 1st, as well as the days following, all people give
each other red-and-white tokens in the form of strips, ornaments or a pair of
small woollen dolls, traditionally called “Pizho” (the male character) and
“Penda” (the female one), also known by the name Martenitsas.
According to tradition, Marta (the female of the word “Mart”, the BG version
of March) is an angry old lady who rapidly changes her mood from worst to best
and back again. She is popular all around Bulgaria as "Grandmother Martha" (or
"Baba Marta" in Bulgarian ). According to the typically Bulgarian belief,
spring comes with the arrival of “Baba Marta”. Her dual image of both merry
and mischievous, of simultaneously approving and denying character, represents
the woman as the beginning of life as well as the elemental devastating
beginning at large.
March is traditionally believed to be the only “female”
month of the year - the month of conception of spring, the month of land
giving birth to summer and fruitfulness. The red-and-white
woollen token called “Martenitsa” [mar-te-‘ni-tsa], after the name of the
month “Mart” is the very sign of the coming March - the symbol of the wakening
of the earth for a new life as well as the cult to the Sun.
The white colour of the Martenitsa initially symbolized
the human nature, the strength and the light solar zone. Later influenced by
Christian mythology, it became the symbol of virginity and virtuousness – the
white colour is the colour of Christ. The red colour in the Martenitsa was
chosen to represent health and the woman’s nature - it is a sign of blood,
conception and birth. The women’s wedding dresses and traditional costumes
used to be red once upon a time.
Traditionally, the Martenitsa has always been a unique amulet that was
believed to provide protection from the powers of evil. The wearing of a
Martenitsa used to be a kind of a magical ritual act: the twisted white and
red woollen threads protected the person from the mechanisms of black magic.
Tradition. In the
morning of March 1st the housewives used to hang out red aprons, belts, rugs
or twisted threads in front of their houses as protection against illnesses
and poverty. When Baba Martha, symbolizing the spring month of March, would
see them she would start laughing and that way make the Sun shine bright
The women were supposed to twist white and red threads
together, thus producing Martenitsas, which they later gave to all members of
the family to wear. The Martenitsa must be twisted in the same way as young
unmarried women “twist around” the bachelors. The married women should place
their Martenitsas on the right side of their chests, the single ones - on the
left. The bachelors were supposed to wear the Martenitsas with their ends
spread, while the elderly ones - on the contrary, should make sure their
Martenitsas are well and neatly arranged, so that they wouldn’t fly around
Generally, the Martenitsa is believed to preserve
the person wearing it from any bad luck or illnesses. Once the owners of the
Martenitsa have seen the first stork – the symbol of the spring, they must
take their Martenitsa off and hang it on a blooming tree. The different areas
of Bulgaria offer a different vision of that tradition – according to another
one people should leave their Martenitsas under large stones only to return
nine days later and see what they would find underneath it - if they found
ants that meant the year would be rich of sheep, if they found larger bugs,
then they would have more cows that year. Other people have the tradition of
throwing their Martenitsas into the river, so that their lives run smoothly
and they escape from all hardships of life.
In some parts of the country the first week of March is
called the “Counting Days”, which are supposed to determine what the weather
would be like all through that year. There is also another custom – the
“Picking of a Day” custom – people are choosing a day of the month of March,
and then are waiting for this day to come in order to see if it would be sunny
or rainy, cold or warm, as their lives would be during the whole of the year.
Young mothers and children tie a Martenitsa around their wrists. The white
thread in the Martenitsa promises long life while the red one is a means of
protection against illnesses and is supposed to give health and strength, so
cherished at the end of the winter season when the power of life has depleted.
There are many traditional beliefs and stories regarding the origin of the
red-and-white symbols of the Martenitsas – the most popular being the
More than a dozen centuries ago, the proto-Bulgarian ruler Khan Asparukh (also
known as Khan Isperikh) left his home in the distant Tibet Mountains in search
of new fertile land for his people to live on. He passed through many rivers
and mountains until he finally reached the lands of the Slavs, who accepted
him and his people as dear guests. Slav women, wearing white outfits, would
bring drinks to the tables full of food – samples of everything that grew on
that blessed land. But the Khan did not enjoy it, he was sad and homesick as
he missed his mother and his dear sister Kalina. He sat by the huge river
running in that distant land and tears ran down hid sunburnt face, while he
prayed to Gods and the Sun for some miracle to happen.
And it did happen! A swallow landed on his shoulder and the Khan
shared all his sorrow with it. Then the swallow flew away, back to the lands
the proto-Bulgarians came from, and with a human voice it told Kalina, the
Khan’s sister, that her brother found a new land for his kingdom but he was
missing her much and was sending all his best feelings…
Kalina was very happy to hear that – so she decided to send
her brother a token that she had received the news. She made a small bunch of
some green bush leaves, which she bound with a white woollen thread, and then
made knots at the end of the thread as a greeting sign – and she sent the
swallow to take that bunch back to her brother.
The swallow flew fast as lightning and very soon it landed
back on the Khan’s shoulder again. But due to the long flight its wing got
hurt and some blood drops dyed the white woollen thread. The Khan was so happy
to see the green bunch, he understood his sister’s greeting by the knots she
had made, and so he pinned the bunch on his chest. The Khan ordered his men
each to put a small bunch of twisted red-and-white thread on that day each
year – for health and heavenly blessing. That happened on the first day of
March, and has remained a tradition ever since.
According to Bulgarian tradition, each morning on the
first day of March, a fire has to be started in the backyard of each house,
with plenty of smoke. Then everyone living in the house has to jump over the
fire three times, facing the rising sun, to clean off any evil spirits and
keep all illnesses away. The mistress of the house should take out some red
clothes and fabrics and flings them onto the tree branches and onto the fence.
Then she decorates the young kids and the newborn animals with Martenitsas she
had prepared herself from woollen or cotton threads.
The traditional Bulgarian Martenitsas had various additional
objects woven into them – coins, dry garlic cloves, blue beads, iron rings,
hairs of horse’s tail, snails’ shells – therefore people always believed the
Martenitsas to be special kinds of tokens supposed to keep all the evil
According to oldest traditions, children are supposed
to carry the Martenitsas on their right wrist, on their neck (as a necklace)
or on their chest, while the young unmarried or the newly-wed women – on their
neck or woven into their hair. Men are allowed to carry their Martenitsas over
their left elbow or over their left ankle (i.e. to remain unseen!), while in
some regions men are expected to put them into their left shoes, right under
the heel – due to the belief that if someone saw them wearing a Martenitsa
tied on their wrist, then their masculinity could be tied up too...
The old-time traditions and beliefs have been preserved
all through the centuries, although today Bulgarians wear the red-and-white
tokens with the belief to just please Baba Marta - so she will not make us
cold. In doing so, we are expressing the hope that the warm spring will come
as soon as possible.
Once we have had our Martenitsas pinned on our clothing or tied around our
wrists (it is usually the right wrist we are supposed to put the Martenitsa
on), we have to keep them there until we see some sign of spring - such as a
crane or swallow, or a blossoming tree. Only after seeing that sign, do we
remove the Martenitsas, as only then we know for sure that spring has truly
arrived. After seeing a crane or swallow, or a blossoming tree, we are
supposed to tie our Martenitsas on a fruit tree, and make a good wish, which
is believed to always come true.
Enjoy the feast of spring with your red-and-white tokens – the
Another Version of MARTOUVANE - 1st March
The name March comes from the
Latin Martius, i.e. ‘of Mars’, the god of war, son of Jupiter
Junona. Old Bulgarians called it “birch month” – the birch trees grow leaves
and give sap. Very early in the morning, before the month begins, the young
girls get up so that Granny Marta does not piss on their eyes and make them
feel sleepy the whole summer.
young ones must be the first to meet the wilful old woman and thus she will be
smiling and merry and the weather will be good and sunny. In March people
don’t have their hair cut so that she does not “cut” their brains and they
Many, many years ago, Khan Isperih left his home in the far away Tibetan
mountains and went in search of fertile land for his people, the
proto-Bulgarians. He crossed many mountains and rivers until finally he
stopped in the land of the Slavs who met him cordially.
Slav women, dressed in white, brought him cups of wine and the tables were
piled with food, the fruits of this blessed land. But the khan was not happy
for he was sick for his family – his mother and his sister Kalina. He sat on
the bank of the big river and tears like pearls dropped down his masculine
cheeks. His eyes looked in prayer towards the sun and the gods. And the
miracle happened. A swift swallow alighted on his shoulder. Isperih told her
his grief. The swallow flew away to the lands from which the Bulgarians came
and told Kalina in a human voice that her brother has a new kingdom, that he
grieves about her and sends her greetings. Kalina was very happy to hear that
and decided to send a message to her brother. She made a nosegay of green
plants, tied it with white woollen thread, made some knots on it meaning best
regards and sent it back with the swallow. The bird flew like thunder and very
soon was on the shoulder of Isperih again. But after the long journey its wing
was wounded and bright red blood had tinted the thread. The khan took the
nosegay with joy, read in the knots his sister’s greetings, put the nosegay on
his breast and the martenitza shone bright.
Since then Isperih ordered his people to make a bunch of twisted white and red
thread and wear it on their breasts on this day – for health and blessing from
heaven. This happened on 1st of March and has remained until this day. In the
morning of 1st of March people set fire in the yards of their houses, with
lots of smoke. Then everybody jumps over the fire three times, facing the
rising sun, in order to be purified from evil forces and guarded against
diseases. The lady of the house takes out red clothes and fabrics and puts
them on the branches of the trees in front of the house and on the fence. Only
then she decorates the children and the animals with the martenitzas made from
woollen or cotton thread.
Christians tell the story that many years ago,
when people were merry they dressed in white clothes. Thus on an early morning
of 1st of March, in the year when Jesus was to come among the people, Virgin
Mary, dressed in white, stood in the middle of the room in front of the fire,
cut a strip of her skirt and died it with her virgin blood. Then she twisted
it with another white strip and decorated her breast. She went out on the
veranda to meet the first rays of the sun and announce to the universe the
expected fertility and to bless it… And Jesus Christ was born, consubstantial
with God the Father, incarnated by the Holy Ghost and Virgin Mary – the Holy
Mother. Since then the twisted white and red is called “martenitza”. On the
first day of March all Bulgarian women, all children and the domestic animals
are decorated with it to be healthy, to be fertile and bring happiness to the
family. According to Christians living along the river Tonsos, this Bulgarian
custom is unique and expresses homage to the Mother of God.
In the traditional Bulgarian martenitza women entwine
coins, cloves of dry garlic, beads, iron rings, hairs of horsetail, snail
shells, etc. That is why the martenitza is considered to be a charm against
Children wear their martenitzas on the right
wrist, around the neck or on the breast, while young girls and brides wear it
around the neck or woven into their hair.
however, tie the martenitza above their left elbow or left ankle. In some
regions they put it in the shoe under the left heel for if someone sees them
with a martenitza their masculinity may be “tied”.
Martenitzas are tied on young animals and the fruit trees.
People wear the martenitza until they see a stork. Then they tie it on a
fruit-tree branch, make a wish and are sure it will come true. 1st march
is the Nameday of Marta, Martin.
Baba Marta Brings
Spring to Bulgarians - Summary
All Bulgarians celebrated Sunday a centuries-old tradition -
exchanging Martenitsas on the day of Baba Marta, and the shining sun spelled
nice and warm weather ahead.
Eagerly followed on March 1 every single year, the tradition
of giving your friends red-and-white interwoven strings brings health and
happiness during the year and is a reminder that spring is near.
Celebrated on March 1, Baba Marta (Grandma March), a feisty
lady who always seems to be grudging at her two brothers, and the sun only
comes out when she smiles. As folklore often goes there are different versions
of the Baba Marta tale. One says that on that day she does her pre-spring
cleaning and shakes her mattress for the last time before the next winter -
all the feathers that come out of it pour on Earth like snow - the last snow
of the year.
The martenitsa tradition is thought to have been inspired by
Bulgaria's first Khan Asparuh, who sent a white string to his wife to tell her
he survived a battle.
People are supposed to take off their Martenitsas when they see the
first signs that spring has already come - a blooming tree, a stork, or a
When the martenitsa is taken off some tie it to a tree - one that
they'd like to be especially fruitful. Others place it under a rock and based
on what they find there the next morning guess what kind of a year this one
The martenitsa now comes in all shapes and sizes - from
Guinness-worth giant building packages to two tiny simple strings gently
placed on a newborn's arm. Children usually compete who will get the most and
often walk around more ornate than a Christmas tree. However, it always bears
the same meaning - a lucky charm against the evil spirits of the world, a
token for health and a sign of appreciation.
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