In the fateful year of 681, the Bulgarian Khan Asparuh probably had no idea that he would be laying the foundations of the future Bulgarian state.
The only thing that he must have known at the time would have been that he had successfully led his people across the Danube. He had defeated the Byzantine Empire on its own territory and had to deliver the news of his victory to the rest of the Bulgars waiting on the northern bank of the river. He did so by sending a carrier pigeon. But while the bird was still in flight, the Byzantines intercepted it and shot arrows into it.
In spite of its wounds, the pigeon arrived at its destination and achieved its purpose. Asparuh's sister was so happy with the news that she took the bloodstained white thread that had secured the letter to the bird's leg, cut it into strips and decorated her brother's warriors with the pieces. In her opinion, her newly invented amulet would bring them victory, health and happiness.
Ever since then the khan's descendants decorate themselves and their relatives with red and white threads called martenitsa on 1 March.
This is only one of several patriotic legends about the symbolism of the martenitsa. It probably appeared in the 19th-20th centuries and has been hammered into children's heads ever since. The topic is covered in a number of websites, including Wikipedia.
The romantic story of the Bulgarian khan is the apotheosis of the more mundane interpretation of tradition, which makes Bulgarians wear the martenitsa as a symbol of spring, and of their hopes for good health and luck throughout the year. Under the Communist regime, the first plastic martenitsi, in the shape of storks, tulips or snowdrops, appeared, replacing the more traditional red and white dolls representing the two folk characters Pizho and Penda.
Democracy reinforced this tendency. As early as the middle of February, it would be impossible to walk down any major Bulgarian street and not stumble upon a martenitsa stand. Some of them sell crochet-hook martenitsi and the traditional interwoven red and white threads, with or without the usual blue bead to ward off the evil eye. Most of them are made by the sellers or their relatives and range from kitsch bracelets with your name on them to huge wreaths to hang on your front door.
Plastic amulets, however, reign supreme. Some are made in the images of Batman, Barbie, Spiderman and other popular cultural idols. Others represent Yin and Yang. In 2005, after the first "Big Brother" TV series in Bulgaria, the citizens of Pernik literally went mad for martenitsi bearing photographs of the people who had participated in the show. Singer and TV personality Azis and footballer Berbatov have also been turned into martenitsi symbols.
The holiday itself has become an occasion for social activities. A few days before 1 March, politicians and mayors visit nursing schools and homes for disabled children, and tie red and white threads, though mainly to get their photos in the press. In 2002, a woman from Stara Zagora entered the Guinness Book of Records with her 12-metre martenitsa. Since then, others have tried to beat her achievement.
However, Bulgarians recently learned a horrible truth about their martenitsi. Whether plastic or woollen, most of them are made in China. In spite of its ancient origins, the martenitsa has now become a part of the global economy.
Evidence that the martenitsa is older than proto-Bulgarians or Khan Asparuh himself is purely circumstantial. But, like Dan Brown's novels, it makes for a more exciting tale.
Since the dawn of civilisation in the Balkans, the colour red has been considered a powerful weapon against evil forces. The first Indo-Europeans used to pour red ochre over the head and limbs of their deceased relatives. People who had been initiated into the Elysian mysteries – a cult centring on resurrection – used to tie interwoven red and white threads around their wrists and ankles.
One can easily discern similarities between the image of Baba Marta, or Grandmother March – patron of March celebrations, renowned for her moody temperament – and that of the ancient Thracian Mother Goddess. Her name has become so emblematic of the holiday that Bulgarians often use the greeting Chestita Baba Marta, or Happy Grandmother March.
Regardless of when the first martenitsa was tied, the tradition is as resilient as ever. In the past, people used to celebrate 1 March by tying a red and white thread to a particular part of their body, depending on their age and gender. Children used to wear it on their wrists, teenagers on their fingers and young unmarried women around their waists.
Each region used to have its own variant. In southwestern Bulgaria, people used a blue thread instead of a white one. In theRhodope, several different colours were used. The appropriate time for taking off the martenitsa also differed and could be anywhere from nine to 40 days after the celebrations.
Traditionally what happened at that time was the same everywhere. People put it under a rock. A month later, they would turn the rock over and make predictions about the coming year based on the types and numbers of creatures underneath. For example lots of ants would signify an abundance of sheep, while beetles would mean oxen and cows. Worms would turn into horses. At the same time young girls would take the opportunity to reflect on their marriage prospects.
Blending millennia-old tradition and current pop culture
This tradition, as traditions must, has undergone significant changes. Today, most Bulgarians take off their martenitsi on 25 March, the Annunciation, when the first tree blooms or when they see the first stork. At the appropriate moment, they hang their martenitsa on a blossom-bearing branch, although you may also see martenitsi on trees that never flower, like cypresses, fir and pine-trees.
The martenitsa has reached into cyberspace as well. Now you can buy martenitsi online, or have them shipped to your friends across the globe.
Long before the appearance of Facebook, Bulgarians already had their analogue social networks. At the end of the Socialist period, a new trend emerged for people to give martenitsi to their friends. As years went by, the practice became common and thus turned into the main force behind the martenitsi trade. That is why the number of martenitsi you wear on 1 March indicates how many friends you have.
The Internet played a decisive role in making Bulgarians realise that the martenitsa, which they had long believed originated with them, is actually well-known all over the Balkan peninsula. On 1 March Romanians give each other the Mărţişor. In the mountainous regions of Greece during Lent, young children wear interwoven red and white threads called marti on their wrists. There are also martenitsi in Moldova, Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.
Arguments as to the origins of the martenitsa took an unexpected turn last year when the logo on google.bg was decorated with a red and white thread with the description, Mărţişor. A few hours later it was changed, so that the Bulgarian version of the site now says martenitsa and the Romanian one Mărţişor.
Last year some blogs spread the news that the European Commission's youth week site claimed martenitsa to be a Romanian and Moldavian invention, and Bulgaria was not even mentioned. A year on, however, the word Mărţişor does not produce any search results on the www.youthweek.eu website.
Ironically, that same year Bulgarians themselves ignored the martenitsa as a symbol of their country and chose Madarskiya konnik, or the Madara Horseman, instead. The lovely red and white amulet ranked far behind because it was not considered a Bulgarian creation.
Foreigners who live in Bulgaria, however, are of a different opinion. In a recent Vagabond poll they chose the martenitsa as one of Bulgaria's top symbols. What would have Khan Asparuh made of that?
FACTS ABOUT 1 MARCH
In Bulgaria, the interwoven red and white threads symbolise health and luck, while in Romania it is the 365 days of the year.
Pizho and Penda are characters in the Shop folklore tradition, who loved each other so much that they became inseparable for the rest of their lives.
Ancient Bulgarians believed that martenitsi for the entire family had to be made over the course of one night, before 1 March dawned. The oldest woman in the family would normally be put in charge of the task.
According to some more radical theories, the martenitsa is a symbol of the Zoroastrian religion.
Bulgarians believe that Baba Marta's mood, and hence the weather, would be affected by whoever steps outdoors. She loves the young and is angry with old people. That is why only the young and teenagers venture out on the morning of 1 March.