Walking the streets of Sofia during the month of February you come across stands selling an assortment of small items, all of them red and white in color. Looking closely, you see packets containing pieces of string, tassels, intermingled red and white yarn. Small woolen dolls – a male and a female. Souvenirs? Good luck trinkets?
Pedestrians quickly make their purchases and hurry on their way. Everything is in preparation for the month of March, and for the holiday that hopefully heralds the arrival of spring.
If you happen to be in Bulgaria on March 1st, join in the celebrations of Baba Marta (Grandmother March). On this holiday, Bulgarians exchange bracelets of white and red yarn called martenitsa. These adornments, given to loved ones and friends, are pinned to clothing or worn around the wrist until you see a stork or blooms on a tree.
“Tchestita Baba Marta” (Happy Grandmother Marta)! This is how Bulgarians greet each other on the first of March.
Who is this Baba Marta? Apparently, she is a grumpy old woman whose moods swing very rapidly, much like the swiftly changing weather of March. By wearing the red and white adornments, people ask Baba Marta for mercy. Enough of winter. Bring on the spring!
The martenitsa may have its origins in a 7th century battle between the Bulgars and the Ottomans, but possibly it may date to Roman, Hellenic or even Thracian days. There is a similar tradition in Macedonia, as well as in Greece, Albania, Romania, and Moldova.
When spring finally arrives, when blooms are on the trees and storks are in the air, the martenitsa are removed from wrists and clothing. The small threads are then tied around tree branches where they can still be seen months later.
As for Baba Marta? We’ll see you again next year, Grandmother March!