On the first day of March a visitor in Bulgaria may be slightly surprised to see virtually everyone wearing a small red-and-white pendant, wristband or other decoration (often more than one).
The good health charms for loved ones
These are the so-called “Martenitsi” (plural for “Martenitsa” or “Мартеница” in Cyrillic) – good health charms and spring celebration symbols. They are always given as gifts – to friends, family, loved ones, and one should never buy one to themselves. The good will and affection behind this custom make the exchange of the little decorations one of the most charming even if slightly naive traditions in Bulgaria, not entirely unlike St. Valentine’s Day. Google featured martenitsi on one of their famous doodles on March 1, 2011.
The origins of this tradition are obscured by time, as it is genuinely ancient. Some historians even date it back to Thracian times. However, the symbolic behind it is quite clear – the red and white symbolize the rosy cheeked complexion of a healthy person (often likened to milk and blood), the change of seasons and the awakening of the nature to the first warmth of the spring. From this stems also the rule that one should wear their martenitsa until seeing the first irrefutable and irreversible sign of spring – this could be the return of a migrating bird, such as a stork or a swallow, or the first green buds on a plant. Then the martenitsa is not discarded, but rather tied to a plant that’s broken into leaf or bud (usually cornel), leaving many trees and bushes in red and white around mid-March to puzzle the occasional tourist.
Making of martenitzi
The martenitzi are made of intertwined red and white wool or cotton thread. Most often they take the form of a twin tassel, but sometimes they are shaped as stylized male and female figures – Pizho and Penda. Bracelets are also common, necklaces not so much. There is no “canon” in the design – some can incorporate beads, metal, bone, wooden or (more recently) plastic elements, even leather.
Giving is good, not only in Bulgaria
The gifting of martenitsi on the First of March is very typical, but not exclusively Bulgarian custom – it has spread to a lesser or greater degree in the bordering regions of the neighbouring countries, with almost no change in Southernmost Serbia and Macedonia, in a slightly modified versions in parts of Greece, Albania and Romania. Members of Bulgarian diasporas and culture clubs around the world are familiarizing their friends with this tradition, giving hundreds of martenitsi each year.
The photos are kindly provided by one such club, the Luxembourg based Bulgarian cultural club “Gaïda” (named after the Bulgarian bagpipe), and the shown martenitsi are hand-made by its members.
Do you have a similar custom in the part where you come from? Tell us what you think in the comments below.