Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Every March, Red and White Strings Welcome Spring in Bulgaria and Romania

Text by Ekaterina Petrova   
I remember walking along Canal Street in New York’s Chinatown on March 2 a few years ago, when I saw a man sporting a small ornament made of red and white thread pinned to his coat lapel. He must be Bulgarian, I thought to myself with a sudden rush of homesickness, but now realize that he may have been Romanian as well.

Every year, Bulgarians and Romanians welcome the coming spring on March 1 by participating in a traditional exchange of ornaments made of red and white threads. Called mărţişor in Romanian and martenitsa in Bulgarian, they are figurines to be pinned to the chest, bracelets or worn around the neck.

Though the two countries’ traditions are not identical, they are very similar – from their name (derived from the month March) to the idea behind them. The Romanian holiday bears the same name as the ornaments, while in Bulgaria the day is known as Baba Marta (Grandmother Marta) – the benevolent but unpredictable (like the weather in March) old lady.

To the north of the Danube, the mărţişor are usually gifted by men to women, while to the south – in Bulgaria, the martentitsi are exchanged all around between family members, friends and colleagues and even tied around the necks of pets and cattle in the villages.

The red and white strings are given and donned as a way to greet the coming spring and guarantee a healthy and fruitful year. In Romania, the thread is usually tied around a brooch-like ornament, like a flower, a heart or an animal.

Though these exist in Bulgaria too, by far the most traditional martenitsi consist of two tassels resembling a male and female figurines, known as Pizho and Penda. There, it is also not uncommon by the day’s end to see young people’s arms adorned with red and white bracelets from the wrist to the elbow, though most people still settle for one pinned to their sweater or coat’s lapel.

Romanians wear their mărţişor for two weeks, while Bulgarians are obliged by tradition to wait until they see a stork – a sure sign of spring’s arrival, and then tie their martenitsa to a blooming tree.

Despite the numerous versions on the exact origins of the thread-tying tradition, they all seem to concede on the dual symbolism of the red and white colours and their purpose in celebrating spring.

One version connects the holiday to the ancient Roman celebration of the New Year, which also took place at the beginning of March, the month of the god Mars: the protector of agriculture and war. In this sense, the white and red may been seen as symbols of peace and war, as well as winter and spring, respectively.

Another legend concerning the martenitsa in Bulgaria claims that Khan Asparuh, a Bulgarian ruler from the first century AD, sent a letter of his victory over Byzantine soldiers by tying it to the foot of a bird with a white string. The bird was wounded and the string became partially coloured with its blood, but it nevertheless managed to reach the military camp and bring the good news.

The March ritual seems to be just another commonality between the EU’s two youngest members, though both Romanians and Bulgarians seem to regard it as uniquely their own and are often unaware of the parallel tradition existing just across the Danube.

Over the last decade, the tradition has become exceedingly commercialised. Nowadays, on Sofia’s streets, one can buy pins with a fluorescent pig holding an umbrella or the Greek and Turkish glass evil eyes, where the red and white thread is not central, but simply an addition. Even Asian symbols are being incorporated – with little elephants among the most popular martenitsa ornaments.

This may be because a large a large quality of the martenitsas sold on Sofia streets at the end of February are made neither at home or by hand, but come as a mass-manufactured import from China.

So, my spotting the man with a martenitsa on his lapel those years ago in Chinatown may have more to it than I initially thought.


I think this is a Balkan tradition more than a Bulgarian/Romanian tradition. I grew up in Albania and my grandmother used to make the bracelets for my family to welcome spring as well. :) I hadn't seen the bracelets in at least 10-12 years it's good to know that the tradition is still around, it brings back memories.
Klaus Kristo




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