Martenitsas – an old Bulgarian tradition

In Bulgaria every spring, every Bulgarian can be seen wearing a small red-and-white token made of yarn. This is a martenitsa, and it is belongs to an ancient tradition that might be more than 6000 years old.

On March 1 every year Bulgarians approach friends and family members with the greeting “Chestita Baba Marta” (roughly translated as “Blessings of Grandmother March”) and with each greeting they give a martenitsa. The recipient then must wear the martenitsa until the first stork of the spring is sighted (or until they see the blossom on a tree or until the end of March – depending on where in Bulgaria they happen to live).

At that time, the take off the martenitsa and hang it on the branch of a tree – or any living plant – as a gift to Mother Nature. Almost any time of year, you can spot these small red-and-white tokens still hanging from trees in public parks throughout Bulgaria.

Martenistas can be of many different forms – from very complex to very simple. There are two basic types, however, the kind that is pinned to one’s shirt collar (and is often in the form of a tiny human being) and the kind that is worn around the wrist.

There are a number of folk stories told about the martenitsa, but many scholars report that it is most likely a modern holdover of an ancient Thracian summer fertility ritual. The white and red were ancient colours for the male and female respectively, and the fusion of the two was considered a strong magical force for fertility in all of nature.

The tradition of the martenitsa is strictly limited to Bulgaria and to a few areas immediately around the Bulgarian borders. These locations represent the central area controlled by the many tribes of Thrace from 4000 B.C.E. until the arrival of Slavic peoples in the early centuries of the Common Era.