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Baba Marta Festival

Baba Marta Day, celebrated on March 1st, is a deeply cherished traditional holiday in Bulgaria, marking the eagerly awaited arrival of spring. It is also the oldest European tradition kept to date. The holiday is named after the mythical figure Baba Marta (Баба Марта), or "Grandmother March," who embodies the transition from the cold embrace of winter to the warmth of spring. This day is synonymous with joy, renewal, and the practice of exchanging martenitsi (мартеници), small ornaments made of red and white yarn. Baba Marta Festival continues until the Spring Equinox , when people take off the martenitsi. 

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The Tradition of Martenitsa

Martenitsa (мартеница) is a small adornment - a bracelet, a broach, a necklace or even a pair of earrings, crafted from red and white yarn. The red represents life and vitality, symbolising the energy and health that spring brings, while white stands for purity, joy, and the last of the melting snow. These adornments are exchanged as tokens of health and happiness among friends, family, and loved ones, and are traditionally worn until the arrival of spring is confirmed by the sighting of a stork, swallow, or the first blossoms on trees. If none of these are seen, then martenitsi (plural form) are officially removed on the first day of astronomical spring, a.k.a the Spring Equinox. The martenitsi are then often tied to blossoming trees as a wish for good health and prosperity.

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The Legend of Khan Asparuh and the Creation of Martenitsa

The martenitsa is also tied to the legend of Khan Asparuh, the founder of the Bulgarian state in 681 AD. According to the story, Khan Asparuh reached the northern bank of the river Danube in preparation to cross it and claim the land south of the river. During that time, the land was part of the Byzantine Empire. Two of the khan's siblings - his sister Huba and his brother Bayan, were taken hostages by the Byzantine soldiers. The khan spent a few days strategising how to cross the river and save his siblings. Upon the crucial battle, the khan's army stood on the north bank of the Danube and the Byzantines stood on the south. To warn his brother that the Byzantines are ready to attack, Huba tied a white thread to the leg of a dove and she sent the bird to fly across the river. During the flight, just before the dove reached the khan, it was struck by an arrow.  The blood from the dove coloured the white thread and created a pattern. Khan Asparuh picked up the dove, took the thread from it and put it on his hand. He won the battle and established Bulgaria south of the River Danube. This red and white thread, symbolising the struggles and aspirations of Asparuh and his people, is said to be the origin of the martenitsa, embodying the spirit of perseverance, health, and success.

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The Martenitsa in Other Communities

The tradition of wearing martenitsa is not exclusive to Bulgaria. It is also observed in varying forms across other Balkan countries and communities, showcasing the shared cultural heritage of the region. In Romania and Moldova, for instance, the 1st of March is celebrated with similar customs, where people exchange red and white trinkets called martishor (mărțișor) as symbols of spring and renewal. This shared tradition underscores the common desires for health, prosperity, and the arrival of spring.

Folklore Connections

Baba Marta herself is a figure deeply rooted in Slavic folklore, representing not just the capricious nature of March weather but also the broader themes of change, rebirth, and the cyclical nature of seasons. This personification of a month as a grandmotherly figure who holds sway over the weather is a unique cultural embodiment of humanity's attempt to understand and personify natural phenomena 

There are different versions of the Baba Marta tale. One says that on that day she does her pre-spring cleaning and shakes her mattress for the last time before the next winter - all the feathers that come out of it pour on Earth like snow - the last snow of the year. This story can also be found in German folklore, for instance in the "Frau Holle" or Mother Hulda legend.

In another Baba Marta is presented as a sister of the great long-horned beetle (January) and the small long-horned beetle (February). She is always dissatisfied with her brothers as they are either drunk on wine or are otherwise harmful. The old woman becomes angry, hence the weather breaks.

 

According to a widespread story, an old shepherd decided to rise her flocks up in the mountains during the last days of March, thinking that Baba Marta would bestow good weather on her because she was as old as Marta. Baba Marta became infuriated by being considered old, and asked her younger brother (April) to lend her a few days. April granted her wish and these days are called "borrowed days", "zaemnitsi" (заемници), or "few days" in the Bulgarian folk tradition. Marta let out the strong snows and blizzards that froze the shepherd and her flocks in the mountains.

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Modern Celebrations

Today, Baba Marta Day remains a vibrant part of Bulgarian culture, with its traditions spreading across borders and being embraced by Bulgarian communities worldwide. The making and exchanging of martenitsi have become a way to connect with Bulgarian heritage, celebrate the coming of spring, and wish for health and happiness.

Creative Heritage's Martenitsa Tree

As a community group focused on the preservation, presentation and popularisation of cultural traditions and folklore celebrations, we decorated a lovely tree on Trinity Square as a martenitsa. The aim of this project is to educate the local residents about Baba Marta Festival, spread joy and make the growing Bulgarian community in Sutton feel recognised and at home. 
We would love to claim the originality of this idea, however, it was previously implemented by another community group in Cincinnati, USA. 

The temporary decorations will stay on from 1st March until 20th March 2024 (Spring Equinox) and everyone is welcome to admire or take pictures with the Martenitsa tree until then. 

On 3rd March 2024 (Bulgarian national holiday), Creative Heritage team will be at Trinity Square from 2pm until 4pm, giving out martenitsi to everyone who would like to have one. Bulgarian Folklore Choir "Maghiya" will have a short performance at the square to celebrate the occasion. 

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