Bulgarians celebrate many local holidays and traditions. Some of my favorites include Surva with its fantastic costumes and dances, and I’m a sucker for Saints Cyril and Methodius Day which celebrates literacy. However, one of my absolute favorite Bulgarian traditions is Baba Marta Day, which celebrates the end of winter and the coming spring.
Who is Baba Marta?
Baba Marta means Grandmother March in English. She is the personification of the month, and the holiday is celebrated every year on the first of March. In local mythology, which dates back to the pre-Christian era, Baba Marta comes to end the winter and begin the spring. Think of her as a Punxsutawney Phil figure except she doesn’t say when spring will come. Instead, she is the Decider.
(Even though I think of Baba Marta’s Day and Groundhog’s Day as being tangentially related, don’t make the same mistake I did. This year I wished my Bulgarian taxi driver a ‘Happy Groundhog’s Day,’ which he’d never heard of before. I tried to explain this quirky American holiday to him, and he thought I was certifiable. He’d also never heard of the movie. It is always funny when you find out there’s some bit of American culture that’s still a secret abroad).
There are multiple versions of the folk legends. Some believe that Baba Marta is a nice old lady who comes to get rid of her grumpy brothers January and February. Why she’s upset with January and February changes from legend to legend, but in one it’s because they drink her wine. So fair, I’d be pissed at them, too. Incidentally, March is the only month thought by Bulgarians to be a woman.
While she brings spring with her, it’s not always smooth sailing. If it starts to snow or if the weather suddenly turns cold, Baba Marta is unhappy:
Her dual image of both merry and mischievous, of simultaneously approving and denying character, represents the woman as the beginning of life as well as the elemental devastating beginning at large.
If you are lucky enough to be in Bulgaria on Baba Marta Day, you can wish the Bulgarians you meet Честита Баба Марта (Chestita Baba Marta) or Happy Baba Marta’s Day!
What is a Martenitsa?
A martenitsa (plural: martenitsi) are amulets or tokens of Baba Marta. The colors are almost always exclusively red and white (though there are some local variations). The red symbolizes birth or life, while the white symbolizes cleansing and newness. Thus, together the colors invoke rebirth and starting anew.
The most common martenitsi you’ll see, and the ones you’re most likely to be given if you purchase something in a store or meet with a Bulgarian, is a small red-and-white yarn bracelet.
Today these are generally purchased and given as gifts to friends and family, but traditionally they were made by women who made sure everyone in the family received one to wear since it was supposed to protect against evil and bring good luck. Women wear theirs based on their marital status: the left arm is for unmarried women and the right arm is for married women.
There are also larger red-and-white dolls called Pizho and Penda. Pizho is white and male, while Penda is red and female. These can be actual dolls, or they can be symbolized by larger ornaments that come in a pair with one being red and one being white.
Besides being the symbols of rebirth, martenitsi and Baba Marta’s Day also celebrate fertility, both agriculturally and for individual people.
Where Do You Get a Martenitsa?
Starting on March 1, these are given out as gifts. You can prepare to give these to friends, families, or anyone hosting you by buying them at stalls around Bulgarian cities and towns in the days leading up to the first of March.
These should be gifts, so you buy ones to give away, but the ones you wear yourself are supposed to be given to you. Of course, if you buy a larger set of dolls or decorations for your home, you can purchase these yourself.
You can also make them to give away. Since martenitsi span the gamut from simple twists of two pieces of yarn to complicated braiding and embroidery, anyone can make one no matter their skill level.
If you’re lucky enough to be here while martenitsi are for sale, you should take some home with you. They’re one of our favorite ideas for unique Bulgarian souvenirs.
How Long Do You Wear It?
You wear your martenitsa from when you receive it until you see the first signs of spring. This can be in the form of buds opening on trees, or the sight of storks in the sky or even swallows. Alternatively, if you don’t see a stork or swallow, and you forget to check for blossoms on trees, you can take it off at the beginning of April.
Why are Bulgarian Trees Decorated with Martenitsi?
Once you take off your martenitsa, you can do two things with it. The most common is to hang it on the tree you spotted flowering, especially if there is a tree you’re emotionally or financially invested in being extra fruitful this year. That’s why you’ll see beautiful martenitsi hanging in flowering trees all across the country starting in middle to late March.
Another tradition is to take your martenitsa and place it under a rock. In the morning, you can check it to tell what kind of year you will have. I don’t know how you’d be able to tell from the martenitsa, so if this tradition interests you I would ask about it while you’re here. To me, this seems like a Tooth Fairy style tradition, except instead of money you get to tell your own fortune.
What are Some Other Baba Marta Traditions?
While the martenitsa is the most common nation-wide Baba Marta tradition, there are a few local variations. In Troyan, women from each house come out and tie red wool ropes on the fruit trees and the horns of cattle. If you happen to be in the area visiting Troyan Monastery on Baba Marta’s day, this would be an excellent reason stay the night.
The grandmothers of the villiage of Haskovo dress in all red on Baba Marta’s day, while in Razgrad wives put red fabric on the fruit trees at sunrise.
Where Else is Baba Marta Celebrated?
Like many Balkan traditions, you’ll find variations of Baba Marta and martenitsi all over the Balkans. The holiday is celebrated with similar customs in parts of Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, Albania, Moldova, Turkey, and even the Greek parts of Cyprus.
UNESCO incribed this tradition as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2017 and recognized this holiday as part of the heritage of Bulgaria, Macedonia (North Macedonia), Romania, and Moldova. According to UNESCO’s inscription:
Cultural Practices Associated to the 1st of March comprise traditions transmitted since ancient times to celebrate the beginning of spring.
The main practice consists of making, offering and wearing a red and white thread, which is then untied when the first blossom tree, swallow or stork is seen. A few other local practices also form part of a larger spring celebration, such as purification actions in Moldova.
The artefact is considered to provide symbolic protection against perils such as capricious weather, with the practice ensuring a safe passage from winter to spring for individuals, groups and communities. All members of the communities concerned participate, irrespective of their age, and the practice contributes to social cohesion, intergenerational exchange and interaction with nature, fostering diversity and creativity.
Informal education is the most frequent means of transmission: in rural areas, young girls are taught how to make the thread by older women, while in urban areas apprentices learn from teachers, craftspeople and through informal education.
Planning a Trip to Bulgaria for Baba Marta’s Day?
If you’re researching Bulgarian holidays and folk traditions as part of planning your upcoming trip, here are some resources that can help you.
First, check out our post on How to Plan a Trip to Bulgaria, which is a checklist of the most important elements to consider.
If you’ll be arriving in Sofia, definitely check out our post on how to avoid taxi scams so your trip starts off right!
Finally, we have tons of Bulgaria and Balkan articles to help you plan your trip. You can check out our Bulgaria page for more.
Where to Stay in Bulgaria
If you’re planning a trip around Bulgaria and don’t know where to stay, we’ve picked a few of our favorite hotels and guesthouses for each major tourist city for each budget category.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Finally, make sure you always travel to Bulgaria with a valid travel insurance policy. The country is a very safe place to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Pin This for Your Trip to Bulgaria
Stephanie has been living in and traveling around the Balkans for the past three years. She’s written for National Geographic Online, appeared on CNN Arabic and in the New York Times, and ridden more Balkan buses than is good for a person.