09 May 2023

Of the many national holidays Bulgarians have, perhaps the most unique one is the celebration of Baba Marta (Old Lady March or Granny March) that takes place on the first of March every year.

It is a centuries-old tradition that puts a smile on the face of everyone, regardless of their age, because it involves something whimsical and fun – a timely uplifting of our spirits year after year just when we need it most, at the end of winter.

It is in fact such an old, special custom that it has been on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2017.

On 1 March Bulgarians exchange martenitsas – red-and-white interwoven strings or figurines – wishing each other health and happiness during the year. We could say that martenitsas are a lucky charm against evil spirits. They are given away to friends and family, even to acquaintances or strangers you happen to meet for business on 1 March.

The fun element of the ritual is that once given, a martenitsa is worn around the wrist or pinned on clothing. In rural areas people often decorate their domestic animals with martenitsas too, but more on that a little later. Old and young, all across the board from babies to dogs to adults to the President of the republic, every Bulgarian is happy to wear one or five or ten martentizas and celebrate the most Bulgarian of all rituals.

Martenitsas are worn for a certain period, usually until the first sign of the birds whose return signifies the coming of spring such as storks or swallows. Since more and more people live in heavily urbanized areas, storks are hard to come by these days so many choose the first day of astronomical spring, 21 March, as the day to take off their martenitsas. It is believed that it brings good luck if you tie them onto a tree branch, so many blossoming trees become even more gilded at the end of March. Some trees’ crowns even look like a festive explosion of red and white.

The legends of how 1 March became the holiday of Baba Marta and martenitsas are several but perhaps the most long-lasting one goes back all the way to the very establishment of the country in the seventh century.

It is said that the founder of Bulgaria, Khan Asparuh, wrote to his sister that he had found a true paradise on Earth for their tribe to settle. She sent his messenger dove back with a white silk thread tied around its leg to tell him she had got his message and was alive and well, soon to join him in the new land. The string cut too deep into the bird’s leg, however, and was coloured red by its blood. The legend said the bird arrived on 1 March. The khan took the thread and wore it, issuing an order that the two colors, interwoven, would signify the unity of Bulgaria. To this day Bulgarians around the world wear martenitsas as a throwback to the very origin of their motherland.

How much of that is true no one really knows, but we are happy to be part of a tradition that involves wildlife – while also hoping the dove received good treatment for its leg and something extra to honour its feat! A good meal of nuts and oats every day comes to mind.

We celebrate Baba Marta in Banichan with local children. The young ones are the happiest on the holiday and usually compete who will get the most martenitsas. We make sure our donkeys are decorated with the joyous red and white charms and invite children over for a little enactment, involving Baba Marta coming down from the mountain.

In Bulgaria, Baba Marta is believed to be a somewhat grumpy old lady who always seems to change her mood – much like the month of March can offer both freezing cold and brilliant sunshine. Our Baba Marta, clad in traditional folklore attire, is all smiles, however. She comes down with a faithful donkey friend, carrying two baskets: one filled with white wool, the other with red. There is much laughter in the air, the usually quiet Donkey Valley suddenly awash with the ringing merriment that only excited children bring.

Our four-legged friends enjoy their company very much and get a nice, tasty treat of carrots fed to them by little hands. They are petted too and are very happy to provide a ride for our visitors. We have said many time that donkeys are social animals so events like Baba Marta are a truly wonderful experience for them.

For the children, this is a great opportunity to spend quality time with our donkeys and be in touch with animals that many of their parents took for granted as part of the family when they, themselves, were growing up. It is a beautiful day overall where humans and animals alike wear cheerful martenitsas and celebrate the inevitable march of upcoming spring.

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