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Today, March 1st, is Martenitsa- or Grandma Marta day- in Bulgaria.
The tradition has as many backstories as I’ve asked people to explain it. I’ve heard it was an ancient king who tied a string around a pigeon’s leg as a message to his wife. I’ve heard it’s something about the war and the Bulgarian flag. What people haven’t been able to explain is how a grandmother, Grandmother Marta, got mixed up in the whole thing. Nevertheless it’s a really cool tradition that I’m glad I get to be a part of.
What you do is you tie a red and white string around your wrist on March 1st, in celebration of Grandma Marta. Then you yell “Happy Baba Marta Daaaaay!” You’re supposed to wear the ribbon until you see a stork!
Since…you know…where the hell are you s’posed see a stork, the tradition has also been expanded to include when you see a budding tree for the first time (some people cheat and go to the zoo to see a stork! The most laden down trees are those right next to the stork exhibit at the Plovdiv zoo!).
At the first budding tree you find- usually around May- you take off your band and tie it to that tree. What you end up with is a bunch of trees all over Bulgaria and Romania that have red and white ribbons tied to them. Nobody ever comes along and unties them, so there are trees all over the country that have had ribbons on their branches for years and years.
My friend Svetoslava in Plovdiv told me that people give them out as gifts. When you get one, you’re supposed to give one in return. This is especially true with elementary school kids.
Little kids go to school on March 1st with their pockets bulging with red and white string, and come home with their whole wrist and forearm tied up in little bands.
“Especially the teacher” she told me, “because everyone wants to be a good student. They have it up to their elbow!”
So if you happen to see a tree with a red and white string tied around the branches, you know a Bulgarian person was there, and that it was the first tree they saw with flowers on it.
баба Марта (or, Grandma March)
I have a new favorite holiday.
March 1st in Bulgaria is Baba Marta, or Martenitsa. I’ve heard so many different theories and stories as to its origins and as to its modern purpose, so it appears to have become a holiday that everyone interprets to their liking. Its most basic explanation is that it indicates the beginning of spring. Sure enough, March 1 brought the first quasi-temperate weather we’ve experienced in
years weeks. It is quite possible that this multiplied my joy on March 1st.
My experience in the celebration took on several forms. First, on February 29th, we went to Caritas to make little “Martenitsi” (the plural of Martenitsa) for the people who spend every night in Caritas’ homeless shelter. I had no idea what to expect, but when I asked how to make Martenitsi, I was told, “Just do anything”. While many people get creative, the most common Martenitsi, I’ve come to learn, are little bracelets, figurines, necklaces, and pins. The only common denominator is that they are all red and white. So, we spent the afternoon making all kinds of trinkets. I learned how to make a very traditional Martenitsa. There is a story of a brother named Pishu and a sister named Penda. The story is complicated (and there are many versions of it), but ultimately, due to the tricks and manipulations of a witch, Pishu sacrifices himself for his sister’s life, turning into yarn. Rather than see her brother like this forever, Penda too asks to be turned into yarn. And so, it is traditional to make Pishu and Penda out of yarn and connect them with a single string. Pishu is red for sacrifice, and Penda is white for love.
I made this Pishu and Penda pair! Not bad, right?
This is somewhat silly and embarrassing, but the title of this article is, “Americans participated in Martenitsi workshop”.
I was having fun already! Now, I knew we were giving these to the homeless shelter, but I thought it was just out of kindness, to spread some holiday cheer, to help them feel special.
I learned the next day (on the actual holiday) what the true purpose of the Martenitsi were. Within 15 minutes of arriving at school, I was bombarded with all manner of Martenitsi from students and other teachers. Apparently, the point is to actually give them to other people. And since I have over 200 students, they all searched for me during breaks to help me participate in their tradition. By the end of the day, my wrists and lower arms were covered with bracelets, and my shirt was so stuck with pins that I had to start attaching them to my jeans! I was like a walking Christmas tree. I then went out and purchased some Martenitsi to give to friends and others. I didn’t want to be left out!
I had MOST of my Martenitsi on at this point. Some fell off, and some had to be taken off…Plus you can’t see my belt-loops.
All (most) of my Martenitsi removed. Of course, I only found out later that it was bad luck to remove them before you see either a tree blooming, or a stork.
It was so much fun. Later that day, we went back to Caritas and helped the Caritas kids make Martenitsi to then hand out to passersby on the street.
Caritas kids ready to pass out Martenitsi to very appreciative pedestrians.
Like many holidays, Baba Marta has of course become commercialized, but (like many holidays) that didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely.