On March 1, Bulgarians celebrate Baba Marta – one of the most beloved Bulgarian traditions, preserved to this day. We associate the holiday with the symbolic beginning of spring and the renewal of nature. On this day, everyone presents their loved ones with martenitsi – special ornaments made of white and red yarn. They are a symbol of health, luck and strength during the year. This custom is an important element of Bulgaria’s cultural heritage and continues to be a favorite tradition for many Bulgarians today.

Although there are different variations and names in different cultures, the general idea of wearing ornaments associated with spring and wishes for health and luck is widespread in the region. The tradition of tying a martenitsa, made of twisted white and red woolen threads, is known not only in Bulgaria, but also in other Balkan countries such as Romania, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and others.

The name of the holiday “Baba Marta” is associated with the mythical creature “Baba Marta” (Grandmother Marta), which is part of Bulgarian folklore and personifies the changeable month of March. She is the personification of March and is considered the sister of Golyam Sechko (Big Sechko) and Malak Sechko (Small Sechko), which represent January and February. The custom of Baba Marta is related to the beliefs and traditions associated with the coming of spring. Throughout the month, rites are performed to chase away snakes and lizards, as well as fortune-telling related to certain migratory birds.

The custom of wearing martenitsi on March 1 is closely related to the feast of Baba Marta and is the day of her arrival. Bulgarians believe that when Baba Marta laughs, it is sunny and warm outside, but if she gets angry, the wind blows and clouds hide the sun. Therefore, many of the traditions on March 1 are aimed at propitiating her. She is believed to appear dressed in red and visit only tidy and clean homes, so people clean their homes at the end of February. This spring cleaning symbolizes getting rid of everything bad and unnecessary from last year. A red tablecloth is brought out into the courtyard to please Baba Marta and attract favor to the house, according to Bulgarian stories.

The martenitsa is made of two twisted threads, mostly of woolen or cotton yarn – in white and red. In some areas, the martenitsi are multi-colored, but the red color always predominates – a symbol of life, the sun and fertility. While the white color represents purity, innocence and happiness. It is a tradition on the first day of March for the oldest woman in the family to tie a twisted white and red thread on the children’s hands for health and against bad luck. Martenits are carried for a certain period of time – until the appearance of a flowering tree or the first migratory bird. They are placed on a tree or under a stone. In the latter case, you can guess – if there are ants under it, the year will be fertile. Another custom is to hang them on a flowering tree or bush or carry them to the storks’ nest and only then put them on a tree. Decorated trees and bushes are traditionally seen in many places in Bulgaria and the world. It is believed that the gift of the martenitsa brings happiness and luck. That’s why all people give martenitsi to their relatives and friends.

Legend of the Martenitsi

There are many legends and traditions related to the origin of Martenitsa in Bulgarian culture. One of them tells about Khan Kubrat, the ruler of the proto-Bulgarians, who at the end of his life ordered his sons not to split and always remain friendly and cheerful. So that Bulgaria’s enemies may never defeat them. Time passed, the khan died and it was time to check his vow. Then the Khazars attacked the proto-Bulgarians and captured Kubrat’s daughter – Khuba.

The leader of the Huns, Khan Ashina, offered the five sons to recognize him as their ruler, and he would free their sister and conquer the Bulgarian lands. The Khan’s sons did not know what to do, the choice was difficult.

The eldest son, Bayan, decided to recognize Khazar rule and stay with his captive sister. The other brothers did not agree and went to look for free land for their tribes. One brother went north, and the others, Asparukh, Kuber and Alcek, went south. Before parting, the brothers secretly agreed with Khuba and Bayan to stay with Arshina, at least until free land was found. After that, Asparuh would send them a bird tied by a golden thread to its leg as a sign to flee. The brothers went on their journey and left the captive girl and Bayan in Ashina’s hands.

Soon Khuba and Bayan received the sign from the dove with the golden thread on its leg. Eventually, they escaped from the bad khan and reached the waters of the Danube. They did not know how to cross to the other shore and only the dove could show them the way. Bayan took a white thread, which Khuba tied on the leg of the pigeon. They let the bird fly, but at that moment Hunnic troops appeared and fired at them. Bayan was injured, and the beginning of the thread he was holding was stained with blood. Just at that moment, Asparukh appeared with his soldiers on the other side of the river, which caused the Huns to flee.

Asparukh helped Khuba and Bayan cross the river. He took the thread from Bayan and tied its white end with the red one. He then pinned his troops with a piece of the red thread. After that, he stood before the army and confessed that he and his brothers had disobeyed their father’s advice and thus paid with their blood for their disunity. He ordered that the red and white thread never be torn, because this bloodstained thread will forever bind the Bulgarians.