March is a capricious month during which we can experience a little bit of winter and spring weather. Everybody waits for coming spring with longing and there is a very special tradition overspread in some Balkan countries and not only. First day of March is called Baba Marta (Grandma March) day and the name is associated with mischievous old woman, who is known from changing moods – as well as March is known from weather changes.
During this day people share with their family members and friend’s bracelets made of white and red threads, woolen or cotton. Bracelet martenitsa is called differently, depending on the country. In Macedonia it’s мартинка (martinka), in Bulgaria – мартеница (martenitsa), in Greece – martis, in Albania – verore and in Romania and Moldova – mărțișor. Mostly, white color symbolizes purity and health and red is symbol of blood and life. There are several other sources saying about white as a symbol of health and longevity and red symbolizing sun waking up to life after long winter. The most common saying is that the white and red colors, put together, symbolize simply wish for good health.
When we give martenitsa to our loved ones, we want to protect them from the „bad eyes” of Baba Marta. This is why these woolen bracelets are treated as some kind of amulets. Usually people wear martenitsa until they see first sign of spring, which can be first blooming tree or first stork or swallow. However, some people wear it for the whole month March. As soon as the first sign of spring is seen, what a wearer suppose to do is to put martenitsa on blooming tree or under the stone. According to common beliefs, it should bring health and good luck. Once upon a time martenitsa left under the stone was used for divination. People were coming back after few days to check what appeared there. If there were some kind of insects (as red ants, for example), people interpreted it as a promise that the flock of sheep or horses will increase. Nowadays, people still have tendencies to look for signs under the stones to foretell the future. Appearance of maggots is interpreted as a success, ants tell that there is a success ahead, on which you have to work hard to come, and spiders announce misfortune.
Searching for origins of this tradition, we can find a lot of interesting legends. The tradition has over 1300 years and dates back the beginnings of the Bulgarian state in 681, when Khan Asparuh fought many battles against the Byzantine Empire. According to the legend, after one victorious battle Asparuh sent an eagle with white threads tied to its legs with announcement of victory to his sister or his main camp. Before the bird reached the place of destination, it was wounded by an arrow of a Byzantine soldier. The white thread turned red, because of blood and this is how first martenitsa was created, with simple message that there is no joy without suffering.
Other sources reach deeper to Roman traditions and refer to god of war Mars and his sister Bellona. The Roman population was once celebrating Martius, the first day of March and in the same time the first day of the calendar year. These times it was the beginning of preparation to war season with cleaning weapons and organizing races. White color was associated with Bellona and red with Mars.
The legend about Baba Marta sounds more like a story that adults tell their children. It says that Baba Marta – identyfying March – is sister of Big and Small Sechko, who identify January and February. Brothers Sechko live in the mountains and Baba Marta has to leave them, because she is moody and it influences the weather. With her smile comes sun, but her anger brings clouds and wind. When she frowns, it brings snow and cold, which destroy already flowering plants. Baba Marta, who always wears red dress, visits people’s houses and gardens. For the good luck people clean their houses and burn unnecessary things in first spring bonfires. Children have fun jumping over bonfires, while mothers hit the pots to chase away all the evil spirits. There is one superstition connected with coming of Baba Marta – older people don’t leave their houses at 1st March, because she wants to see only young ones. Different version of the same story explains that Baba Marta is so capricious, because each year during winter her brothers drink whole wine without leaving her even a bit.
Martenitsa is also treated as a symbol of infinite love. In Bulgaria people make not only bracelets of white and red threads, but also two dolls called Pizho and Penda (Пижо & Пенда). Pizho is a male doll made of white thread and Penda is a female one made of red. The legend says that Pizho was a hardworking boy with good character and heart, who fell in love with the most beautiful and the smartest girl in the village. Penda loved him back, so they got married and everyone was delighted with power of love that united them. To this day, Pizho and Penda remind of eternal love every year.