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Like many old traditions that have been passed down by word of mouth and from one generation to the next, there doesn't ever seem to be only one 'official' story surrounding the giving of Martenitsa. For every detail that remains consistent, there are five that vary depending one who's telling you the story. At least it's always interesting... Indeed someone once described at as 'a huge conspiracy to make foreigners feel stupid because every Bulgarian you ask will give you a different explanation of it all.' What you can be sure of though is that it takes place in March and has to do with the coming of Spring.

The 1st of March is a day that many people in Bulgaria look forward to for a long time, although it's still cold, it is the month that heralds the coming of spring. Spring in personified in ancient folklore by a character called Baba Marta, literally translated this means Grandmother March. She is said to be an old lady who is very temperamental, much like the weather at that time of year. When she is smiling the weather is sunny and warm, but if she gets angry the cold will stay for longer and it may even snow.

So, on the first day of March every year people make, buy and give each other Martenitsa. These items can take many forms, but are always coloured red and white and usually made out of wool although they can be made out of any type of thread or yarn. The simplest type of Martenitsa is made in the form of a bracelet, one piece of white wool and one piece of red wool are entwined round each other in a sort of candy-cane spiral and then the two ends are tied together. The design can vary though, and people make them in all sorts of patterns. Sometimes they have small pieces of blue wool to represent the sky or green for the new grass and leaves. They can also have small gold coins or beads and tassels on the end.

It is seen as something special to receive one (or many) of these from friends and family members, when the bracelet - or sometimes necklace - is given to you, you must wear it to appease Baba Marta. Wearing it will make her happy and so help to bring the good weather, it will also bring you health and luck for the coming year. The wearing of the charm, it's specific meaning and when it can be taken off depend on the region of Bulgaria (and who is telling the story). It can normally be worn around your wrist or neck but in some areas there are more formal guidelines, for example young unmarried girls should wear it pinned to the left side of their dress, young unmarried men should tie it around their left hand pinkie finger and married men should put it on their right sock. In some places there are different Martenitsa depending on your social status and there are also special ones for decorating the house and domestic pets. It is seen as especially important for children, newly-weds and young animals to have a Martenitsa as it is seeing youth that makes Baba Marta most pleased.

Generally the custom is that you should wear it until you see the first stork of the season. If the stork is flying it means that a lot will happen and change in the summer, whereas if it is on the ground it will be a lazy summer. Also, the first fruit tree in blossom is a sign that you can then take it off and tie it onto one of the branches of the tree, thereby passing it the favour of health you got from making Baba Marta happy and making sure of plentiful growth. Sometimes it is also said that when it is time to remove your bracelet you can place it under a rock. The next day you should go back to the rock and see what kind of insect or animal you see closest to it, normally this is used in predictions about prosperity for the coming year. For example, if it is a worm it means you'll have lots of success and good health, an ant brings similar fortunes but you'll have to work to gain them. A spider is not what one would most wish to find by the rock as this means the coming year may be filled with troubles. If it's an unmarried women who places her martenitsa under a rock, the animal will predict what type of husband she will find.

The other type of Martenitsa are also made from wool, but they are made into the shape of two human figures. One is male and is coloured red, the other is white and represents the female. Together they are usually referred to as Pijo/Pihzo and Penda. They come in all sizes; from tiny little ones that can be worn like a badge to large puppet type ones that can be used to decorate ones home. They are often richly decorated with woollen details like clothes, baskets, hair and eyes. They are normally worn or kept up for the whole month of March.

Although today the celebrations focus on sending away winter and welcoming spring, the stories of years long passed often have a different focus and may explain where the whole ritual comes from. Long ago there were many wars fought in that part of the world and in the spring, men would often have to leave their families to go and fight. Their wives and the women of the house would make small tokens like the bracelets or dolls to send with the men and remind them of home. Having the soldiers wearing them was supposed to appease Baba Marta by showing her the pale and scared faces of the women (the white wool) and the blood of the men (the red wool) that they did not want to be spilled, in the hopes she would protect them and not bring more hardship through cold weather. Traditionally the colour red is used along with garlic, small coins and snail shells to ward away all evil spirits, that is why these small items are also often tied onto the Martenitsa.

Although it's such an old tale, it is a tradition that is very much alive. If you ever find yourself on the streets of a Bulgarian town on March 1st you'll be greeted with many smiling faces and plenty of people selling red and white Martenitsa in any form you can imagine (apparently there are even Spider-man ones making an appearance this year!). Chances are you'll also run into a lot of 'crazy' old ladies who may seem to bear a remarkable resemblance to the Baba Marta of old. It's a very joyous day and there are always plenty of celebrations going on, young children in particular seemed to be very enthused about the holiday, perhaps due to the scary stories of what Baba Marta can bring if you don't wear your Martenitsa!


Note: because there are no exact rules for changing letters from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin one you may often find martenitsa written as martenitza, martenitzi, martenica or just about any variation thereof.

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