The first day of spring, according to folk tradition in Bulgaria is the first day of March. It is one of the few holidays in the year unrelated to Christianity. It is still surrounded by mystic beliefs, legend, and much hope for the future. The simple act of tying on interwoven red and white threads, called
martenitza, is surrounded by so much white magic that even foreigners are often tempted to adopt this ritual to welcome spring, health and happiness into their lives.
So, what is a martenitza? Initially it was just two threads twisted together and tied by the oldest woman in the house on the wrists or fingers of children to protect them from bad eyes and ill health. Men would wear them above the elbow, women – on the waist. In some parts of the country blue was used instead of the white or red thread. In others the martenitza was embellished with coins, beads, nuts and other colors of wool. Later two characters appeared – Pizho and Penda – the red male figure and the white female. In ethnographic museums one can see curious color combinations and embellishments from the various parts of the country.
Nowadays, it is a completely different matter. Martenitzas are so popular in Bulgaria that from mid-February all sidewalks are covered with illegal stands selling hundreds of designs, which can be worn as necklaces, rings, bracelets, pins, even rings. A large amount of the martenitzas are actually produced in China and imported in the form of spools of bi-color cord or bunches of white and red tassels – very simplified Pizho and Penda. You can buy these tassels tied to a pin of anyone from Superman to Dexter, from Barbie to Bratz figures, again made in China. During the times of Communism, the coolest martenitza one could have would be a glow-in-the dark one. Needless to say, they were collectibles, a rare luxury.
Martenitzas are part of the spring fortune-telling rituals, which are heavily present in Bulgarian folk traditions. The threads would be left under a stone for several days and then, depending on the bugs found under the stone, people would try to determine if the year would be good for the sheep or the horses. Girls had devised rituals with martenitzas to try and guess who would merry them.
Some people would wear them for three or nine days and then throw them in the river so that evil would pass them by and everything would go smoothly during the new working season. Others would wear them until they saw a fruit-tree in bloom and would tie the threads on it so it would bear more. Still others would wait to see the first stork. If it was flying, it was believed they would work a lot during the summer, if it was standing in the field, they feared they would be slow and lazy and would shout “fly, so I can fly too.”
The symbolism of the white and red thread has many interpretations. The most popular one nowadays is red for health (red cheeks), and white for longevity (white hair). This is the most popular wish to say when gifting the martenitza – “Let us be white and red, ruddy and smiling”.
There is also a curious legend that takes us back to the year 681 AD when the Bulgars, led by Asparukh won over some territory south of the Danube from Byzantium, and decided to start a new state there. Their old territory was taken over by the Khazars. Since Asparukh’s sister and eldest brother were still captives of the Khazars, he sent them a white dove with a white thread, tied to one of its legs. This was the signal for them to run away and follow the bird to the safety of the new land.
While it was flying, the dove was attacked by a falcon, and wounded, its blood coloring part of the thread red. When the family reunited, they decided the white would symbolize their strife for freedom and the red the blood that was shed to earn it, thus claiming the martenitza as a symbol of Bulgaria.
This legend has other versions, and some tell a similar story about freedom-fighters from the time Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule. According to historians, however, there is no proof martenitzas existed before the 19-th century. The tradition has now spread in many areas of the Balkan Peninsula and, as everything else around here, is claimed by every nation as their own.
Regardless of its origin, this simple spring ritual is a merry day in Bulgaria. Schoolchildren can be a hilarious sight on the first day of March. As they get a martenitza from each classmate (roughly 25 of them), each friend (an almost infinite number), and most relatives, they can end up looking like the kitschiest Christmas tree ever. Soon, the same happens to fruit-trees.
So, next time you see a couple of threads tied to a flowering tree or bush, you will know that you have neighbors from the Balkan Peninsula or maybe someone else has decided to adopt this cheery ritual for the first day of spring.