BALKAN_AND_ROMANY_SPRING_TRADITONS.docx

 

 

SPRING IN THE BALKANS AND BEYOND

 

HISTORY OF THE BALKAN TRADITIONS OF SPRING – THE MARTIA

 

 The origins of the various Martia traditions are lost in antiquity, possibly from the Eleusinian mysteries.  During initiation ceremonies participants would wear a red thread around their right wrist and left ankle.  It is practiced today by most peoples of the Balkan peninsula.   

Some say that the original charms were made by midwifes, using the blood stained threads that were used to tie the umbilical cord as good luck charms. The red and white thread charm has it origins in either the Roman Empire or ancient Dacia.

 

 During the time of the Roman Empire New Year was celebrated on  March 1st, the first day of Spring in the old calendar.  March was the month of the god Mars, not only the god of war, but the god of fertility and agriculture.  Mars promoted the revival of nature, green fields, flocks of sheep, and love.  He insured nature’s rebirth and encouraged the continuation of life. This inspired folk tales, myths, legends, and traditions are associated with March’s sudden weather changes.

 

The Dacians also celebrated the New Year on the 1st of March with many spring celebrations.  Small river pebbles were colored white and red, strung on a thread, and worn as a necklace.

 

The white and red colors reflect the dual role of the world and war.  In those times many rituals involved sacrifices, so the red of blood was associated with life, women, fertility and worship. Red was also the color of fire and the sun. White was symbolic of snow, water, ice and clouds; symbolic of the wisdom of men. The two colors might symbolize the desire to forget about winter & pray to the gods to bring new life.  They express the inseparable interweaving of men & women, the exchange of vital forces that give rise to life, the continuous cycle of nature.

 

 

ALBANIA

 From March 1st until March 14th (Summer Day or “Dita e Veres”) many children and unmarried people wear a traditional bracelet called “Verore” (a word derived from the word summer) in Albania. This is the country’s largest secular festival.  It celebrates the end of winter, rebirth of nature, and rejuvenation of spirit.  Some sources date this celebration back to ancient Illyria.

 

On the first day of March, people tie around their wrist two thin braided strings, usually red and white, bracelet in anticipation of the first sign of the spring. The token may be tied on a tree to wish for good luck, and a fruitful and prosperous season.

 

BULGARIA

If you visit Bulgaria on the first day of March you will notice that almost every person is decorated with small tokens made from red and white woolen threads. The advent of spring is celebrated on March 1st, Baba Marta Den (Granny March Day). People greet each other with “Chestita Baba Marta” (Happy Granny March).  Households do a traditional spring cleaning and people offer each other red and white tokens of good luck called “Martenitsi”.  The  “Martenitsa” is the most typical and unique Bulgarian tradition. 

 

The red and white colors of the “Martenitsa” are to please Baba Marta, so that the warm spring will come as soon as possible.  The “Martenitsi” symbolize new life, wakening of the earth, the sun, conception, fertility, spring, and harmony in nature and people’s lives.  White initially symbolized the man, his strength, human nature, the snow, and the sun. Later, influenced by Christianity, it became a symbol of virtue, long life, and the color of Christ.  The red represented the woman, health, blood, conception and birth.  Red later came to represent health and protection from illness. Traditional Bulgarian wedding dresses were once red.  Other color combinations, such as red and blue, blue and white, red and green, or even several colors together, occurred in the Rhodopes and northwestern Bulgaria.   

 

“Martenitsi” are made in the form of tassels, bracelets, or small woolen dolls – the white one is Pizho (the male) and the red one is Penda (the female).  There may be charms such as garlic cloves, blue beads, cornelian buds, iron rings, wooden spoons, horse tail hairs, snail shells, or small silver coins woven into the “Martenitsi”. They were initially made by the women, twisted in the same way as “young unmarried women twist around the bachelors.  In olden times, while making the “Martenitsa”, the maker had to keep away from the fireplace or else the charm would lose its magic power.  It traditionally had to be made with one’s eyes closed so that snakes should become blind and not notice passers-by. “Martenitsi” are a unique amulet believed to provide protection from the powers of evil, illness or bad luck.  They are worn on the clothing or wrists of people, or hung around trees, door knobs, cars, the necks of livestock or pets.  Traditionally married women placed the “Martenitsa”  on the right side of their  chests.  Young single women wore them on the left side of their chest, on their neck, or woven into their hair.  Children and young mothers wore them around their right wrists, as a necklace, or on their chests.  Young boys wore them on their left little finger. Bachelors wore them with the ends fanned out. Married men wore them over their left elbow, left ankle, or left shoe to remain unseen so that their masculinity could not be tied up. Elderly men wore them neatly arranged so that they remained straight during the celebrations.  They are worn until a stork is seen, the symbol of spring, returning from Africa for the summer.  In other areas the herald of spring may be a sparrow, cuckoo, crane, snakes coming out into the sun, or a blossoming tree. This is usually around March 22nd.

 

 The different areas of Bulgaria differ in what is then done with the  “Martenitsi”. 

  • From late March until mid-April you will notice many fruit trees and shrubs decorated with these same tokens. After seeing the sign of spring, in many areas, the “Martenitsa” is tied on a fruit tree (giving the tree health and luck).  This would bring good crops and good health. A wish is made, which they say will always come true.
  • Other areas have a tradition of throwing the “Martenitsa” into a river, so that their lives run smoothly and they escape from hardships. 
  • In other areas the “Martenitsa” is placed under a large stone, to return nine days later.  What is  found under the stone tells one’s fortune for the coming year: snakes bring bad luck, beetles symbolize health and success, worms bring many foals, ants bring many lambs, lady bugs and larger insects indicate more calves, spiders foretell bad health.  Parents sometimes secretly place a coin under the stone where their children hid their “Martenitsa”, similar to the tradition of the Tooth Fairy in the United States. 
  • In still other areas the “Martenitsa” is thrown towards the bird saying “Take the ugliness of the winter away, bring forth the beauty of spring”. 
  • It may also be thrown onto the roof of a house, thrown in the direction of the sun, or burned.
  • In Southern Bulgaria people believed that if the first stork seen was not flying it would be a very lazy summer.  If a swallow is seen first the person will have a graceful neck as long as that of the bird.

Baba Marta is an angry old lady whose mood changes rapidly from bad to good and back again.  She carries an iron stick to lean upon.  The Bulgarian tradition is that Baba Marta arrives just when spring is set to begin.  She is irritable, unpredictable, and quick tempered.  She personifies the extremes of weather during the spring as her moods are reflected in the weather, swinging from sparkling good humor to a boiling rage. When she smiles, the sun shines.  When she is angry, cold weather freezes the ground.   There are many legends about Baba Marta.  According to one legend a woman took her goats to graze in the mountains before the first of March, lured by a sunny day.  There she was punished by Baba Marta for venturing out before the proper date.  Baba Marta turned the woman to stone.  Eventually water began to flow from the stone and it was transformed into a spring.

Another legend revolves around Khan Asparuh. His sister Huba was held prisoner and Asparuh sent her a message by falcon that he had found a beautiful place to settle down. Huba escaped and rode until she reached the Danube River.  She could not find a place to cross, so she tied one end of a thread of white yarn to the leg of the falcon and let him fly.  Huba held onto the other end as the falcon searched, and finally found a safe passage. Just then an arrow shot by the enemy hit the falcon and he fell. The yarn became red from his blood.  Huba took the red and white thread and crossed the river to safety.  It was the first of March, and so the red and white thread was called a “Martenitsa”.

 

 

GREECE

 In Greece bracelets are braided or twisted from red and white wool, cotton or silk.  They are called “Martis”.  “Martis” are given to children on March 1st so that the sun of the early spring will not burn their faces.  The colors are symbolic of rosy cheeks and a white complexion. In some areas the “Martia” is wrapped around the big toe of the owner, protecting from missteps. “Martis” are worn until the midnight mass of the Greek Orthodox Easter or until swing the first swallow of spring.  Bonfires are then lit and the bracelets are removed and thrown into the fire.  In other areas the “Martis” are placed on rose bushes so that birds may use them to build their nests.

 

MACEDONIA

The “Martinka” is made in Macedonia.  It is a red and white bracelet tied  around the wrist.  The bracelet symbolizes the coming of spring, and brings health and luck to its owner and the community. In some places, the talisman is tied on a tree to bring a fruitful and prosperous season.

 

MOLDOVA

The ancient tradition of Martisor (the Amulet) is  celebrated in Moldova.  The name comes from the diminutive form of the name Martie, the Romanian (the language spoken in Moldova) word for March.  There is a similarity between Marti and the Roman god Mars, whom ancient Moldovians celebrated on the 1st day of Spring.

 

In the old folklore, Martisor consisted of a gold or silver  coin or broach on a red-white string which children wore around their necks. Girls wore Martisor symbols around their neck for the first 12 days of spring, then intertwined it in their hair. Men wore the tokens pinned to their lapel. When the storks arrived to signify the coming summer, or when the first trees flowered, the red-white string was attached to a tree.  After wearing it for 12 days the woman might alternately buy fresh sweet cheese and red wine with the coin, believing it would make their skin healthy throughout the year – as beautiful and white as the cheese, and as rosy as the wine.

 

These days in March trees everywhere in Moldova are decorated with Martisors.  A Martisor Music Festival takes place every year from March 1-10.  On March 1st the girls give Martisor to the boys, on March 8th the boys give them back to the girls.

 

ROMANIA – MARTISOR

Archeological excavations in Romania show that amulets similar to  modern day Martisor existed 8000 years ago in the lands of present day Romania in the time of the Dacians (the Romanian ancestors).  These amulets were small stones painted white and red.  These were arranged alternately on a string. In the past Martisorul were made with black (or blue) and white threads, symbolizing the opposing forces of the world: good and evil, life and death, darkness and light.  These colors do continue in some areas of the country, but mostly have been replaced by the colors of love: red and white.

 

In the beginning of the 19th century the Martisor amulet was found throughout Romania.  Men offered women a jewel, flower, heart  or other decoration tied to a red and white string.  These symbolized power and health. Children and women wore intertwined woolen threads of red and white yarn around their necks or on their left hands from March 1st until Marth 12th.  A small silver or golden coin hung from the threads.  Those who wore the Martisor believed that they are protected and would have good luck in the coming year.  At the end of the 12 days the women tied the yarn in their hair until the first spring birds came into the village, then the Martisor was hung in the first tree or rose bush they saw in bloom.  In other areas the Martisor was thrown in the direction from which the birds returned in the spring, sayng “la mi negretele si da mi albetele” (take me the black and bring me the white), asking that sorrow be taken away and replaced with happiness.

 

Today the Martisor is seen throughout Romania as a symbol of the joy of the coming spring.  In most regions the people exchange them as a gesture of love, friendship, respect and appreciation.  Small charms are attached to silky red-white threads tied into a bow and sold all through the country.  The charms may include a 4-leaf clover, chimney sweep, shell, blossom, heart, ladybug, dried flowers cast in amber, horseshoe, star, sun, leaf, bee, bird, other animals, small metal broches, or basically any good luck charm. A popular symbol is the flower called snowdrop, a symbol of spring in Romania. Both men and women wear them pinned to their clothes on the left side of their chests (close to the heart) or tied around the waist from March 1st until Marth 9th, the days of “Zilele Babelor” (Old Dochia). The latest trend is the wearing of the Martisor in the form of a braided friendship bracelet.  A day during those  nine days is chosen and the future foretold by the weather that day – a sunny day predicts a good year, an overcast day predicts a bad year.

 

In other regions the Martisor is worn for the whole month of March, or for the first two weeks, then hung from the branches of fruit trees, doors, windows, or horns of the livestock. This is said to bring wealth, fulfill wishes, and frighten evil spirits.  In Bihor County it is believed if  you wash your face with rainwater that falls on March 1st you will become healthier and more beautiful.  In Banat girls wash with snow to bring love.  The longest Martisor in the Guinness Book of records is more than 584 meters.

 

The Romanian Legend of the Martisor

 One day the Sun decided to come down in the form of a girl to join the village dance. Upon seeing this, a dragon kidnapped her and kept her in a dungeon.  The world was very sad.  The birds stopped singing, rivers stopped flowing, and children stopped laughing.  One day a brave man decided to rescue the Sun.  All of the people gave him their powers to help him on the journey. His journey was long, the travelled through the summer, fall and winter. Finally he found the dragon’s castle.  They fought for days until the man defeated the dragon and the sun was released.  It rose in the sky, cheering the people and reviving nature. The people rejoiced, but the man was severely wounded and never got to see spring again.  The red blood from his wounds drained onto the white snow. As the snow  melted, the white Snowdrop flowers, messengers of spring, began to bloom. To remember the brave man young people today knit red and white tassels together.  They offer them to their loved ones.  Red symbolizes the male – summer heat and love for all that is beautiful, reminding them of the color of the brave man’s blood.  White represents female – honesty, winter cold and the health and purity of the snowdrop, first flower of spring.

 

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