The Tale of Baba Marta, Little Sechko, and the Early Spring

This year, spring came early, in the last days of February. And then retreated. So this story seems apposite. I found it in "Bulgaria: A Curriculum Guide for Secondary School Teachers"Wayback, by Jeanette A. Hahn and Gina Peirce, University of Pittsburgh Center for Russian and East European Studies, 6th January 2006.

In Bulgaria, March 1 marks the beginning of spring, and the month of March is personified as Baba Marta (Grandmother March), a hunched old woman whose unpredictable temper is reflected in the changeable March weather. She is always arguing with her brother, Little Sechko (February), who likes a drop to drink.

One year, spring came earlier than usual in February, and an old woman decided that she would take her goats up to pasture before the proper time on March 1. "Why should Baba Marta mind?" she said to herself. "After all, isn’t she a woman, like I am? Grandmother to grandmother, what will she do?"

Baba Marta overheard her, and watched in a fury as the old woman set off up the mountainside with her herd of goats. At once Marta stormed off to her brother, Little Sechko. "Brother," she cried. "Now it’s time for you to repay me for stealing my wine. Lend me three of your days so that I can kill that old woman who mocks me by taking her goats early to pasture." So Little Sechko, remembering how Marta had once threatened him, gave his sister what she wanted.

Then Marta started to blow and to storm, to rant and rampage across the mountain, breathing icy winds and blizzards of snow. For three days and three nights she raged. And the old woman on the bare mountainside shivered and shook until her heart grew numb, her blood froze and she turned to stone. For three days and three nights Baba Marta raged, but at last her anger subsided, the weather calmed and the sun smiled.

The people of the village wondered what had happened to the old woman during the terrible snowstorm, so as soon as the fine weather came they went up the mountain pastures to look for her. They found her turned to stone. But from her bottom half, a spring of water was flowing. Although the villagers were very thirsty after their long climb, they could not bring themselves to bend down and drink because it made them laugh so much!

So, it is said that Baba Marta wreaked her revenge and had the last laugh on the old woman. And that is why Baba Marta has 31 days, and Little Sechko only has 28.

Mărțișor, μάρτης, мартинка, мартеница

Martenitsa, pinned to a cropped velvet jacket

I trust academic websites more than some others. More than tourist sites, pushing souvenirs at the expense of truth. So when I wanted to find someone describing how they wear the decoration above — a martenitsa — I searched . The blog post "What's New!" by Veneta Haralampieva at Manchester University was the first thing I found:

Finally, I would like to wish you all "Chestita Baba Marta!". In the beginning of March in my home country we celebrate Baba Marta or Granny March — a mythical woman who brings with her the spring and marks the end of the cold winter. Her holiday is celebrated by exchanging martenitsi — a small piece of adornment made by interweaving red and white yarn. It is also given as a token of good health and one usually wears martenitsi until the end of March or until a stork or a budding tree is seen. So lets welcome the spring and "Chestita Baba Marta!" everyone!

I blogged about martenitsi last March, and now it's March again. My photo shows a martenitsa given to me at a Bulgarian party, pinned to this cropped velvet jacket:
The cropped velvet jacket from the above photo

Were I in Bulgaria, I would probably forfeit it once I'd seen a stork or budding tree, perhaps tying it to the tree or putting it under a stone. But I don't have a replacement, so I'm going to keep it. The stork and buds, explains Wikipedia, are evidence of spring, indicating that Baba Marta is in a good mood and is about to retire. Her mood is crucial: the web page "Grandmother March, Baba Marta, 1st March, Martenica" from the Regional Historical Museum in Burgas adds that Baba Marta is moody and easy to anger. So on the first of March, old women stay at home, because Baba Marta wants to see only girls and young brides; and those people who do go out welcome her with red.

There are big martenitsi as well as small. Here's a photo of one on the clock tower in the Bulgarian town of Botevgrad:
Clock tower in Botevgrad with martenitsa [ Photo: via Wikimedia, by Dimitǎr Boevski ]

Martenitsi are sometimes made in the form of dolls, the characters Pizho and Penda (Пижо и Пенда).
A martenitsa in the form of Pizho and Penda [ Photo: via Wikimedia, by Elena Chochkova ]

In Radio Bulgaria's "Pizho and Penda: the folklore symbolism of the martenitsa", Vihra Baeva, a folklorist at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Studies says that the white and red symbolise masculine and feminine, passive and active, purity and the force of life. Bulgarians also use these colours in weddings: the bride wears a white apron and a red sash, and the groom, a red waist-band and a white kerchief in his hand. In this sense, says Baeva, the couple are like a martenitsa come to life; and vice versa, Pizho and Penda being seen as newly weds.

There are lots of Pizhovchi and Pendi in a sweet little photo gallery halfway down the Burgas museum page. In the second row, there's a sampler with the words "Честита Баба Марта" — "Happy Baba Marta". I had to peer closely before deciding that the squiggles on the top left were a word rather than decorative embroidery; but in handwritten Bulgarian, the first word resembles Честита, so the wiggles are just its middle letters in somewhat wobbly stitching. In the fifth row there's a card with the same words in capitals. Probably a a school project, because there's the name of a school ОУ „Найден Геров” underneath.

Bulgaria isn't the only country with martenitsi. A web page from the European Parliament, "Martenitsa — a symbol of spring, health, peace and fertility", says the tradition also exists in Romania (Mărțișor), Greece (μάρτης), Macedonia (мартинка), Albania, and Moldova. The page is by the EU Terminology Coordination Unit, who help make documentation and terminology consistent across languages. I love the idea of standardising the terminology for the martenitsa and its counterparts. An organisation that does this can't be all bad; but no doubt Theresa May would disagree. A citizen of everywhere is a citizen of nowhere, and as a true Briton, I should be concerned only with British spring rituals. Though in Oxford, I think we only have May Morning, Ascension Day, and assorted Morris Dancing.

Where did the tradition come from? The Alexander Fol Centre for Thracian Studies have a page on the topic Translate. This discusses the origins and symbolism, saying that the tradition is not purely Bulgarian, but originated in ancient Thrace and Greece. Which is contrary to the title of Radio Bulgaria's feature "Martenitsa, the uniquely Bulgarian symbol", but that's national pride on the web for you. In modern Greece, says XpatAthens's "Martis — A Greek Tradition To Welcome Spring", the martis is considered to help protect the wearer's skin from the coming months of strong Greek sunshine. If only.


"What’s new!", by Veneta Haralampieva, 5th March 2015 Wayback

Wikipedia: "Martenitsa" Wayback

"Grandmother March, Baba Marta, 1st March, Martenica", Regional Historical Museum, Burgas Wayback

"Pizho and Penda: the folklore symbolism of the martenitsa", by Vihra Baeva, Radio Bulgaria, 3rd January 2015 Wayback

"Martenitsa — a symbol of spring, health, peace and fertility", by Kalina Pesheva, European Parliament DG Trad Terminology Coordination Unit, 7th March 2017 Wayback

"Марта (Мартеница)", Encyclopedia of Ancient Thrace and the Thracians, Alexander Fol Centre for Thracian Studies Wayback Translate

"Martenitsa, the uniquely Bulgarian symbol", by Tania Harizanova, Radio Bulgaria, 3rd January 2014 Wayback

"Martis — A Greek Tradition To Welcome Spring", XpatAthens, 28th February 2019 Wayback

"Grandma March Day — cultural practices on the Balkans", HAEMUS Center for scientific research and promotion of culture Wayback

"The Nomination for the ICH element 'Martenitsa' is inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO", UNESCO, 6th December 2017 Wayback

"Cultural practices associated to the 1st of March: Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Republic of Moldova and Romania. Inscribed in 2017 (12.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity", UNESCO Wayback


Today is the first of March, an appropriate time to mention an item not of clothing but of adornment, the martenitsa:

This is Bulgarian, and its name would be written in that language as мартеница. I have been to Bulgaria, but I think I was given mine at a party in Oxford. What I was told is that it symbolises spring. You start wearing it on the first of March, and continue until you see the first stork (or possibly the first tree in leaf: I can't remember). You then throw it into a wood or under a tree. I may also have been told that the colours relate to a legend about two babies abandoned in a snowy wood and saved by a stork which tears out its feathers to cover them with. The white stands for the snow or the feathers, and the red for the stork's blood.

My reading found numerous other origin-legends, some linking the martenitsa to the founding of Bulgaria. But everyone seems to agree that this adornment is worn to give thanks for the ending of the long and brutal winter. With which I can fully agree. I shan't be throwing mine away, though, because I wouldn't be able to get another to replace it.

The jacket holding the martenitsa came from the vintage shop Unicorn in Ship Street, Oxford. I buy a lot of my clothes there, as posts to come will show, and recommend it.