Baba Marta, known also as Grandma March Day and Birch Month, is a holiday which is celebrated on the first day of March in Bulgaria. This holiday is one of the oldest pagan traditions in Christian Europe and doesn’t usually receive much attention outside of Bulgaria. On this day, it is traditional for people to wear red & white string gifts that are usually in the shape of a bracelet or an ornament that can be worn by a man. It is a day when people can celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring.
History of Baba Marta
While no one knows exactly the origin of Baba Marta, it is known that it goes back centuries – perhaps, even millennium. Some people have even speculated that it may even go all the way back to Ancient Greece or Rome. Regardless of its origin, however, it is known that it is probably one of the ancient traditions that formed on the Balkan Peninsula and is probably related to ancient agricultural cults.
While the truth behind this holiday may be hidden behind the mists of time, there are quite a few legends surrounding how this holiday originated. In one legend, Granny March (Baba Marta) is seen as a woman who is a little bit off of her rocker. One minute she’s happy and the next minute she’s very angry, which would be fine if her temperament didn’t directly influence the weather. When she was happy: the sun came out, the winds were balmy and the skies were blue. When she was angry: the skies became overcast, the wind grew cold and winter lasted all that much longer. In this legend, Baba Marta wouldn’t visit a person’s house unless it was clean. If it wasn’t clean, then she wouldn’t come and winter would stick around.
Like the holiday itself, the tradition of wearing red & white is buried in folklore as well. In some myths, this tradition has been attributed to the god Mars, otherwise known as Ares by the Greeks. In Ancient times, Mars was the god of war but was also the guardian of the spring. During the many wars that have been fought by Bulgarians, women would give their husbands red & white strips of cloth to tie around their wrists for protection. It is said that the color white represents the pale face of the woman the soldier is leaving behind and the color red represent the soldier’s blood.
Baba Marta Customs & Traditions
It is customary for families to clean out their homes in late February – before the arrival of March. This is so Baba Marta will come and bring spring along with her. It also represents the cleaning out of everything that is “old” and the ushering in of things that are “new.”
It is also customary for people to fashion red & white strings together and give them to each other. These red & white personal decorations usually take the form of bracelets and are called martenitsi. The colors are said not only to be a wish for prosperity during the coming year but also a wish for the recipient to have good health the whole year. Traditionally, a person is supposed to wear these charms until they either see a tree in bloom or see a stork. Sometimes when Baba Marta is over, people will tie these string bracelets to birch trees.
Sometimes Bulgarians celebrate this holiday by having a feast to usher in spring. These feasts can include traditional Bulgarian foods such as Chicken with cabbage or rice, roasted potatoes, roasted beans, pork and rice or cabbage, peppers börek, mish-mash, stuffed courgettes, Kavarma, Plakiya, Kapama and Drusan kebab. Baba Marta tables may also be decked out with a variety of cold cuts which include Elenski but, Pastarma and sujak; soups and stews which include Bob chorba, Ribena chorba and Zelenchukova supa; and grilled foods such as pork steak, chicken or grill fish.