Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Crossing the River, Part 3: The Bulgarian Martenitsa and the Romanian Mărţişor

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.
Charles Dickens

Today's cross-cultural post focuses on the Bulgarian martenitsa, and its Romanian counterpart, the mărţişor. Both herald the coming of spring. Although spring doesn't officially begin until the equinox on March 20th, in Eastern Europe, they like to move the season forward a few weeks. By late February, everyone's sick and tired of large piles of dirty snow, cold weather and winter in general. On the first of March, everyone wears red and white bracelets or brooches to appease a Bulgarian mythological character named Baba Marta (Grandma March), who is rumored to have wicked mood swings. You have to please her so that spring will come.

Here in the States the tradition of making and giving of martenitsas has caught on in folk dance groups. I was at a dance party last March and a woman had brought red and white yarn; she had a martenitsa workshop going (people made them when they weren't dancing).  Maybe in the future Baba Marta Day will catch on in this country like the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo. Who knows?

The basic martenitsa is made from red and white yarn, twisted or braided together. The red symbolizes passion, and the white symbolizes purity. It is the custom in Bulgaria for people to make martenitsas to give to friends and family as tokens of affection. In the past, they were all handmade. 

This video describes the origin of the martenitsa in Bulgaria, and you can listen to some folk music while you watch.

The next video is a demonstration on how to make a martenitsa in five minutes (or less).  You'll need red and white yarn, a needle, scissors, and some large beads. A ruler would be a good idea, especially to measure out the yarn.

The Bulgarians will put a martenitsa on everything: people, farm animals, dogs, cats, and even inanimate objects like musical instruments. This band from the United States, Gogofski, follows the tradition;  if you look closely, you can see the martenitsa on the tupan (double headed drum).

If you click on the link below you can see that Romanians also observe March 1 as the first day of spring. Customs and traditions often cross borders.

When you cross the Danube into Romania, the martenitsa becomes a mărţişor. The protocol for giving them changes as well; in Romania the men give the mărţişor to the women and they are somewhat more elaborate in design. Unfortunately, nowadays, both the martenitsa and the mărţişor sold on street corners nowadays are most likely mass-produced in China.  So if you get a handmade one from a friend or relative you are very special to them indeed!

You can see many varieties of mărţişor in the next video, which is accompanied by Romanian panpipe music. The designs are quite original and very colorful: butterflies, cows, mushrooms, cats, flowers, etc. Just about anything can be made into a mărţişor. The traditional tasseled one is shown here as well.

For more background and history on the mărţişor in Romania, click the next link.  It has to do with how the sun, in the form of girl, was held hostage by a dragon and and how she was rescued. It's quite different from the Baba Marta story!

And finally, here's a spring celebration with a Romanian accent.

If you enjoyed this, you may also like:

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Martenitsa (but were afraid to ask)

Crossing the River, Parts 1 and 2.  Part 1 is about folk dances from the Romanian region of Dobrogea.

Part 2 is a cross-cultural comparison of Căluşari in Romania with Kalushar in Bulgaria.

If you like modern-day folktales this is for you:

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