Today I had a surprise in the post: a large envelope arrived from Bulgaria and there was something soft and squashy in it. The Bulgaria bit wasn't totally unexpected, as one of my friends lives in Sofia, but I had no idea what the contents could be.
When I opened the envelope I found a card for 1st March (a big celebration in Bulgaria) and a martenitsa couple. Martenitsas are little dolls made of white and red yarn, which are worn or hung in the house from 1st March until the end of March (or until you see a stork, a swallow or a budding tree). They're supposed to welcome the spring and bring good luck. These are my martenitsas, still in their celophane. Don't they look cute?
The male doll is called Pizho and is always made of white yarn; the female is called Penda and made of red yarn. The funny writing on the card (on both cards) says Chestita Baba Marta which is the traditional greeting for 1st March. It means "Happy Grandmother March". Grandmother March is an old lady that can just as easily smile and be gentle or she can be hard and mean - pretty much like March weather in this part of Europe, which is quite unpredictable and unstable, sometimes sunny and warm, and sometimes snowy and freezing. There are a number of rituals that please Baba Marta, and wearing a Martenitsa is one of them. Another is spring-cleaning, because the old lady only approves of clean and tidy homes.
Romanians have a similar celebration called Martisor (Little March) but instead of the two dolls they tend to have a good luck charm tied to a red and white string.
In Greece, we also have a similar tradition: on the 1st March, children (and sometimes adults too) make a bracelet of red and white string, and wear it until the end of the month, or until they see a swallow or until Easter, at which point they burn it at the flame of their Easter candle. The bracelet is supposed to protect from the bright March sunshine, which can be very harsh on white skin.
I'm really excited because I'd known of this tradition for ages, and I'd seen people wearing Martenitsas in London, but I've never had one of my own before. It inspired me to make a March bracelet for the first time in years. Now if only one of my Romanian friends would send me a Martisor, I'd have a full set :-)
I'm not aware of this tradition existing outside the Balkans, but if you have, or know of, a similar celebration elsewhere in the world, please share!