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Martenitsa is a small piece of adornment, made of white and red yarn and usually in the form of two dolls, a male and a female. Martenitsi are worn from Baba Marta Day (March 1) until the wearer first sees a stork, swallow or blossoming tree. The name of the holiday means "Grandma March" in Bulgarian and the holiday and the wearing of Martenitsi are a Bulgarian tradition related to welcoming the spring, which according to Bulgarian folklore begins in March.
The red and white woven threads symbolize the wish for good health. They are the heralds of the coming of spring and of new life. While white as a color symbolizes purity, red is a symbol of life and passion, and so some ethnologists have proposed that, in its very origins, the custom might have reminded people of the constant cycle of life and death, the balance of good and evil, and the sorrow and happiness in human life. The Martenitsa is also a stylized symbol of Mother Nature, the white symbolizing the purity of the melting white snow and the red setting of the sun, which becomes more and more intense as spring progresses.These two natural resources are the source of life. They are also associated with the male and female beginnings, and in their balance, with the need for balance in life.
Tradition dictates that Martenitsi are always given as gifts, not bought for oneself. They are given to loved ones, friends, and those people to whom one feels close. Beginning on the first of March, one or more are worn pinned to clothing, or around the wrist or neck, until the wearer sees a stork or swallow returning from migration, or a blossoming tree, and then removes the Martenitsa.
In Bulgarian folklore the name Baba Marta (баба Марта, Grandma March) evokes a grumpy old lady whose mood swings very rapidly. The common belief is that by wearing the red and white colors of the Martenitsa, people ask Baba Marta for mercy. They hope that it will make winter pass faster and bring spring. The first returning stork or swallow is taken as a harbinger of spring and as evidence that Baba Marta is in a good mood and is about to retire.
The ritual of finally taking off the Martenitsa is different in different parts of Bulgaria. Some people tie the Martenitsa on a branch of a fruit tree, thus giving the tree health and luck, which the person wearing the Martenitsa has enjoyed himself while wearing it. Others put it under a stone with the idea that the kind of creature (usually an insect) closest to the token the next day will determine the person's health for the rest of the year. If the creature is a larva or a worm, the coming year will be healthy and full of success. The same luck is associated with an ant, the difference being that the person will have to work hard to reach success. If the creature nearest the token is a spider, then the person is in trouble and may not enjoy luck, health, or personal success.
Wearing one or more Martenitsi is a very popular Bulgarian tradition. The time during which they are worn is meant to be a joyful holiday commemorating health and long life.
On that day, Bulgarians exchange, so called "Martenitsi" and tell each other, "Chestita Baba Marta!" (Happy Grandma Marta!). This custom is essentially to wish great health, good luck, and happiness to family and friends. The name "Martenitsa" is taken from the Bulgarian word for March, or, as a legend tells, an angry old lady called Grandma Marta - Baba Marta in Bulgarian ("baba" means grandmother and Marta comes from word "mart", which means March in Bulgarian)
When someone gives you a Martenitsa you should wear it either pinned on your clothes, on the hand tied around the wrist, or around your neck until you see a stork, or a fruit tree in blossom for the first time in the season. After that you can tie it on a blossoming tree for fertility. It is believed that the Martenitsa bring health, happiness and longevity. Like kind of amulet, Martenitsa was attributed a magic power believed to protect folks from "ill fortune", diseases and an evil eye.
The custom of wearing Martenitsa is probably one of the most interesting Bulgarian (pagan) tradition and it is considered to be unique to Bulgaria. According to one of the many legends, this tradition is also related to the founding of the Bulgarian state in 681 AD.