Baba Marta, Martenitsa and Bulgarian Culture

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Bulgarians are fascinating people.  Their culture is very old and very deep.  This past March I was given a delightful Bulgarian gift…martenitsa!  I received a selection of martenitsa.  They are only available in Bulgaria before March and disappear until the following year. I’ll have to wait until next March to get more. They are symbolic gifts with a historic background.  What is the significance of the Martenitsa?

Ok, what is a martenitsa?   A martenitsa is something to be worn.  In Bulgaria, they have a tradition of giving a martenitsa as an act of friendship and affection.  On the first day of March they give these tiny gifts to people they care for, to wear or put around their wrist.  Martenitsa come in a variety of shapes, sizes and formats, but they have this in common.  Martenitsa are made of thread, and are composed of two colored threads, white and red.  I was told many Bulgarians end up wearing dozens of these tiny decorations.  They became similar to walking Christmas trees with red and white ornaments, if only for a day or two. Martenitsa is considered a blessing for the year ahead and a sign of affection.

Martenitsa worn on wrists

Martenitsa worn on wrists

In Bulgaria they have a holiday called Baba Marta, which means “Grandmother March”.   It is a holiday to celebrate the beginning of spring, and kissing off winter.  Baba Marta is a mystical figure of an old lady who symbolizes March, with wild mood swings just like their weather.  Some March days might be nice, but on another day Grandmother March could drop a blizzard.  Baba Matra symbolized how natue was temperamental and our desire to embrace spring.

March weather in Bulgaria can be rough, like an unending winter.  Bulgaria’s climate is similar to my hometown Chicago, and March in Chicago is a desperate hope for winter to end.  After a long winter, the need for the snow to stop and summer to start becomes palatable.  Maybe a key to understanding the martenitsa is its premature celebration of the end of a long winter and the beginning of spring.  It symbolizes hope that better days are soon ahead. 

Chicago could use such a holiday.  Chicago’s version of the martenitsa is the city parking ticket.

It is said the martenitsa’s white threads symbolize the snow of winter, and the red threads represent the beginning of summer with the reflection of a sunset.  Angry Grandmother March finally gives sway to summer.  Yet, I think there is more to this symbolism.  The shape of the martenitsa often represents male and female figures along with red and white threads.  Part of this symbolism is a touching legend in Bulgarian culture about tragedy concerning a brother and sister, with red and white representing blood on white clothing.  

The symbolism of red and white is also a powerful fertility symbol representing male and female.  Grandmother March departs and summer begins the cycle of life.  With spring comes fertility and procreation.  Folklore is full of this symbolism.   Consider the symbolism of the Easter bunny and Easter eggs.   The symbolism of fertility is very old.  Looking at the male and female versions of the martenitsa, the fertility symbolism becomes clear to me.  A fertility blessing is not only for procreation.  It’s also for a healthy family life. and good fortune.  And necessarily a healthy society for our children.  For civilization.  Exchanging martenitsa is an act of shared community.

Typical Martenitsa

Typical Martenitsa

4 Responses to “Baba Marta, Martenitsa and Bulgarian Culture”

  1. Natalina Says:

    Wow, how cool! I’ve never heard of these before.

    Incidentally, Baba Marta’s disagreeable twin sister must live here in North Dakota with me 😉

  2. David Says:

    Natalina, I never heard of these before until it was explained to me in detail. The world if full of traditions and folklore we are completely unaware of. Bulgaria is a small country so their folklore is mostly unknown. I bet the same can be said for many places in the world. From Asia and Africa to South America and beyond, there is a world full of unique beliefs. Even with such diversity, the symbolism is often very similar. That is what intrigues me. Symbolism is a universal language without words.

    And you trump me with foul weather living. ND beats Chicago hands down!

  3. Bulgaria » Unexpected Souvenirs Says:

    […] Baba Marta, Martenitsa and Bulgarian CultureTheir culture is very old and very deep. This past March I was given a delightful Bulgarian gift…martenitsa! I received a selection of martenitsa. They are only available in Bulgaria before March and disappear until the following year. … […]

  4. Georgia Says:

    Thank you so much for posting this, I am Bulgarian and I live with my husband in Alaska, although I speak fluent English sometimes I can not express myself well enough to explain to him the meaning of our traditions so now I am going to post this to his facebook page and he can read it :) Also we are going to wear martenitsi /that is the plural/ tomorrow but we were discussing that there aren`t that many fruit trees up here to hang the martenitsa :)) I think we will have to find a blueberry bush or something so far previous years I used to hang them on just a evergreen tree :) Anyways thank you for the nice article happy 1st of March i.e. Baba Marta

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