Granmother Marta, traditional Bulgarian custom
1 March 2006
All over the world peolpe meet spring with joy and new hope but it is only in Bulgaria where it is saved as an ancient custom.
If you are walking along the streets in Bulgaria on the 1st of March you will witness many smiling faces. But first of all your eyes will be captured by martenitsas. Everyone has decorated their clothes with them. Moreover, you can see decorated dogs and cats. In the small villages in the mountains people decorate their domestic animals: lambs, kids, young horses. Houses have their own martenitsa, as well.
Maybe you are wondering what this decoration looks like. The classical "martenitsa" is made out of red and white weaved threads. Sometimes it ends are made into tassels from the same yarn. Usually the tassels are decorated with blue beads, small golden coins or colorful threads.
The mythical character of Baba Marta personifies the spring, the sun that can easily burn the fair skin of people's faces. According to the national belief Baba Marta is an old lady. She is an old lady and she is limp. That's why she carries an iron stick to learn on. The national beliefes define the temperament of Baba Marta as very unstable. When she was smiling the sun was shining; when she was mad st somebody cold weather was firming the ground. The majority of the rituals aim to make her happy and merciful.
People believe also that Baba Marta would visit only a very clean and tidy house. That's why people clean their houses thoroughly at the end of February. Symbolically this is a spring cleaning from all bad, old and unfertile stuff from the past year.
Baba Marta was very favorable towards the people that wear martenitsa. Usually they were made from wool, silk and cotton yarn by women. The basic colors used were red and white. The threads are woven together. Traditional martenitsa can include other elements such as silver coins, beads, garlic, snail's shells, horse's tail hairs, etc. Together they formed an amulet.
On the first of March everybody should wear martenitsa, especially young children, just married couples or newly born domestic animals. Some of the fruit trees, the handles of the door, the vineyard also have their own martenitsa. There are special places where you can put martenitsa: on the wrists, on your neck as a necklace or on your left side of your dress. In some regions of Bulgaria there are special amulets according to people's social status. Young unmarried girls wear their martenitsa on the left side of their dress whereas young unmarried lads wear them on their left hand small finger, married men put martenitsa in their right sock.
People wear martenitsa for a certain period of time. Usually the end of the period is connected with the first signs of the coming spring - blossomed trees, meeting of the first spring birds like storks, swallows or cranes. Then people remove their martenitsa and tie them to a blossomed fruit tree.
In different regions of Bulgaria the process of taking off the martenitsa was connected with forecasting practices. In Southern Bulgaria people believed that martenitsa fastened to the wrists should be taken away when you see a flying stork. If the stork wasn't flying that was a symbol for a very lazy summer. People take off the martenitsa from their neck when they see a swallow which symbolizes the neck to be graceful and long as of the bird. Unmarried girls put their martenitsas under a big stone and then they would make a prognosis for their future wedding.
When the martenitsa is taken off according to all rituals its special spiritual purposes are over. This marks an important transition - the end of the winter and a tansfer to positive changes. This widespread practice of wearing of Martenitsa and its exclusive stability in the Bulgarian folk culture is explained with the believed magical power of the red colour. Along with the garlic, the metal coin, the blue beads, and wolf's or snake's tooth, the red woolen thread is believed to have the magic power to chase away the evil spirit, the demons and the illneses.
Bulgarians don't practise all these rituals nowadays. The necessity of most of these preventive measures has dropped off. The essencials of this rich ritual have been reshaped according to the modern holiday aspects. The kids are the most enthused when practicing this traditional holiday. They accept Baba Marta as well as they accepted Santa Clause two months before, but they receive Martenitsas instead of presents. There are many songs to Baba Marta also, that are kept from the ancient times and are still sung nowadays. All them are joyful and merry like Marta's character.
The Martenitsa... this magical amulet inherited by our predecessors is the first sign of the coming spring. That's why each Bulgarian wears martenitsa on the first of March, symbolizing ones faith that hereon everything will be better. People will smile because they believe they have won the benevolence of Baba Marta.