March is one of the most spectacular months to live in Bulgaria. Spring is coming. Trees are in blossom. Everyone exchanges good wishes and red-and-white threads. But when a foreigner comes to Bulgaria in March, they might feel a bit overwhelmed by all the traditions around.
Baba Marta (Grandma March)
In the Bulgarian collective memory, March is female, old, and it (or rather, she) brings small presents. She has a name, too – Baba Marta (Grandma March). Every toddler knows that Baba Marta is a charming old lady who chases away the cold and grumpy February. She invites the sun, the flowers, and the birds for a new season of bustling life. The colors of the month are red and white, symbolizing passion and purity. During the weeks preceding March 1st, the streets are packed with hundreds of stalls selling all kind of martenitsa.
In folklore Baba Marta is presented as the wife or sister of Big Sechko (January) and Little Sechko (February). She is constantly unhappy with them; in different tales they drink her wine or do different mischiefs. She gets really angry and as a result the weather breaks.
One of the most popular tales tells us about an old lady, who took her goats out in the mountain. It was the end of March, the very last days of the month. The old lady was counting on Baba Marta for blessing her with good weather – she is as ancient as I am, the old lady thought to herself, she will have mercy. Baba Marta did anything but. She got so mad, asked her brother April to land her a few days and got them. These days are what we call “borrowed days”.
Baba Marta set free all the blizzards and snowstorms and the old lady and her goats were frozen. They then became a pile of stones, from which healing water started running. Yet, the 1st of March, the Baba Marta holiday, symbolizes the spring and brings us wishes for health and abundance in the beginning of the new cycle of life in nature. The tradition is linked with ancient pagan history of the Balkan Peninsula, committed to agricultural cults.
The story of Khan Kubrat
Another legend recalls the story of Khan Kubrat, the Bulgar ruler credited with founding the first kingdom of Bulgaria. As he neared the end of his life, he asked his five sons to keep all of the Bulgar tribes together to maintain the country. But soon after his death, the country was invaded by the Khazars, a Turkish people from a neighboring region.
In the story, the Khazars kidnapped Kubrat’s daughter Houba. Bayan, one of Kubrat’s sons, joined with the Khazars so he could stay with his sister. Another son, Kotrag, moved north, and the remaining three, Asparukh, Kouber and Altsek, went south to stay away from the Khazars.
The latter three arranged that if they found a safe place to settle, they would send a bird to Bayan and Houba with a white thread tied to its leg. Soon, the bird came to the brother and sister, and they tried to plan an escape, but the Khazars found out and followed them.
Bayan and Houba didn’t realize that the Khazar soldiers were so close. As they were about to release the bird to return the signal to the other siblings, Bayan was wounded by a Khazar arrow. Dripping blood onto the white thread (red and white), Bayan still was able to release the bird and they eventually found their brothers. Asparukh gave his soldiers torn pieces of Bayan’s bloodstained clothes in small strips to honor his wounded brother.
Same siblings, different story
Yet another story involves the same siblings, but in a different setting. This one centers around Khan Asparukh, founder of the First Bulgarian Empire and the brother who honored Bayan in the previous story. According to this account, Asparukh, leader of about 50,000 Bulgars, finally reached land on the other side of the Danube and decided to settle there.
Being content with the new land, he went to offer the pagan god, Tangra, a gift to bless the new kingdom. Early Bulgar tradition had it where a sacrificial fire must be lit with a sprig of dill, but none was around. Soon, a falcon perched on Asparukh’s shoulder which had that needed sprig of dill tied to its leg, along with a white woolen thread which was half tinged red. It seems that Asparukh’s sister Houba sent it, having had a dream of his dilemma.
During the flight to Asparukh, the falcon’s wing was rubbed sore and soaked part of the thread in blood. Asparukh attached the thread onto his clothing in remembrance.
Why do Bulgarians give martenitsa to each other?
Martenitsa is a yarn thread in white and red that Bulgarians give to their loved ones on March 1st. A martenitsa is usually tied around the wrist or pinned as a brooch on the jacket. The funniest martenitsas are for the children, of course. They may have tiny toys attached to the thread. Martenitsa is always given as a gift. Don’t buy one for yourself – wait for someone to give it to you.
Bulgarians believe that the ritual will provide them a year full of happiness and good fortune. Sometimes they make a wish while the martenitsa is being tied around their hand. According to the tradition, you cannot throw away your martenitsa until you see a stork or a sparrow. These two bird species spend the winter in Africa and fly back to Bulgaria in mid-March. Another option is to tie it up to a tree in blossom.