Spring's Herald in Bulgaria
March 1, 2015 3:01 PM   Subscribe

Happy Baba Marta Day! Time to get your Martenitsas together and pick out a tree to hang them on when spring finally comes. ...Or, if you're not in Bulgaria, just read this.

We use a groundhog in February; but in Bulgaria, Romania, and parts of the Balkans, spring's herald is Baba Marta, or "Grandmother March" - an old woman with a bit of an attitude problem. Tradition has it that March's changeable weather is due to her shifts in mood - when she smiles, the sun comes out, but when her two brothers are pissing her off, it brings storms. According to Bulgarian folklore, March 1 is the day she begins her spring cleaning, shaking out her featherbed one last time before stowing it away - and the feathers flying off are the last snows of the year.

To cheer Baba Marta up, and in anticipation of Spring's arrival, many Bulgarians wear yarn tassels in red and white, called "Martenitsas" - some are attached to cords and worn around the wrist, others are pinned to shirts or coats. Sometimes the tassels are fashioned into dolls named "Pizho and Penda". Even pets sport their own Martenitsas.

Everyone wears their Martenitsas until they first see a real sign of spring - either buds on a tree or a stork. Then the Martenitsas come off and get tied to a favorite tree, usually a fruit tree or a flowering tree, to celebrate spring's arrival. Or, if you're a bit superstitious, you can leave your Martenitsa under a rock overnight, then check it in the morning to see if any bugs are lurking nearby - if it's a worm or an ant, it's a sign of good luck (if it's a spider....not so much).

This year's Baba Marta has especial resonance for Polya Lesova, a Wall Street Journal staff writer who was born in Bulgaria but has been shivering through New York City's cold winter. Her grandmother always encouraged her to make her own Martenitsas; if you want to try, here's a couple tutorials:

A simple bracelet style.
The tassel style, for pinning on your coat.
The doll-style Pizho and Penda.

And while you're REALLY supposed to either make your Martenitsa or receive it as a gift, here's a way to cheat and buy one.

Честита Баба Марта!
posted by EmpressCallipygos (3 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I still have a Martenitsa somebody gave me a few years ago. "Good luck!" she said, when I asked what it was for, but really with an undertone of, "just shut up and wear it!" I kept it on for the whole of March because I wasn't exactly sure what I was meant to do.

Can I wear the same one again, or is that bad luck? I suppose it defeats it the object if you're meant to tie them to budding trees. Maybe I'll do that this year and make up for it.
posted by Thing at 3:40 PM on March 1, 2015

When I was a counselor at a summer camp, a Bulgarian kid told me about martenitsi. She explained about Baba Marta, but as for the martenitsi themselves, she conveyed only that they were red and white "figures" one wore on one's sleeve -- I had no idea what they were supposed to look like.

The following March 1, an alarm went off in my brain and I decided to put my fuzzily recollected (and never-very-sharp-to-begin-with) version of the custom into effect. I got some red and white foam sheets from a craft store and a supply of safety pins, and for each of the next 31 days, I made a new "figure" of some kind -- a crane (white), a salamander (red), a playing card (both), and so forth -- and pinned it to the sleeve of my red jacket. When both sleeves were full, I pinned new figures to my cap. Here's a picture showing a snail and part of a maple leaf.

If I ran into any Bulgarians that whole month, they certainly did not recognize my highly mutated appropriation -- but the kids at the school I was working at loved it. I'll have to see if I can dig them up again for this year!
posted by aws17576 at 4:35 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this lovely post! I wonder if I have red and white wool in the cupboard...?
posted by daisyk at 11:26 AM on March 2, 2015

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