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
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