March will be here before we know it. March 1 is Baba Marta Day, one of the most popular holidays among Bulgarians. It’s a time to show friendship and wish each other health throughout the year. People make martenitisi, a charm bracelet, from red and white thread to give to others. The day is in honor of Baba Marta, Grandmother March. She’s the only female month, and her mood is reflected in the changeable weather those of us in the northern hemisphere experience as spring attempts to arrive.
This month, I’d like to share a memory about Martenitsa from my memoir, The Wanderer – A Tear and A Smile.
Sometimes, we need a sign or a miracle to encourage and empower us. As Oprah Winfrey likes to say, “Life is whispering to us; we need to listen.” It’s important to understand the signs and follow our intuition.
Years ago, on a gloomy, rainy spring day, I was dragging my feet with a bowed head, absorbed in personal and work-related problems that stifled my soul. I was in Boston Public Garden; I didn’t see or hear anything because I was so closed off inside my world. Anger tightened my throat, and my coat weighed me down like iron.
Then, in the distance, I saw a flower perched on the bare branches of a tree. It danced like a butterfly. When I came closer, I noticed that it wasn’t a flower; it was the traditional Bulgarian amulet called martenitsa. I knew for certain because it wasn’t any random martenitsa, but Pijo and Penda, the boy and the girl made with red and white threads.
For the people passing by, this amulet meant nothing. But for me, it was a ray of light penetrating the clouds. I felt that somewhere near me, someone shared my cultural beliefs. Someone had put the martenitsa on the branch hoping for health and good omens. People going by were walking their dogs, chatting, and taking pictures. I stopped to look at their faces, hoping to spot the person who might have put the amulet there. I was looking for a sign. Perhaps the person would come back and touch the martenitsa.
People smiled at me, and a group of cheerful girls stopped to touch the martenitsa, but they didn’t know about it. They didn’t even know where Bulgaria was, but I expected that. I proudly described what it meant and the history of the amulet. They looked puzzled. One of them said she thought it was the Kabala Amulet or a sacral ritual. They took some pictures and went back to their own world. A little birdie was singing its song at the top of the tree; I felt it was talking to me to cheer me up and help me embrace the day.
The wind blew away the clouds, and the sun bloomed over the branches covering them and the martenitsa with gold. A few sparkling drops of water trickled down from the branch onto my hair and face. I wiped my cheeks with my palm and felt refreshed from their cold touch. The sun shone and tickled my face. Although I wore several layers of winter clothes and held my laptop bag, I felt as light as a feather, ready to fly in the breeze. I left the garden, turned a few times and still saw the boy and the girl dancing on the branch.
On my way home on the train, I looked out the window and kept my eyes glued to the last sun rays. The day was gone, but I had hope that tomorrow would be better. The martenitsa for me was a sign, a sign to embrace the positive in anticipation of a new beginning from the universe. As Byron says, “O, wind, If winter comes can spring be far behind.”
In Bulgarian folklore and traditions, the martenitsa is a symbol of the coming of spring and of new life and new beginnings. Several legends describe the origins of this amulet. I’ll tell you one that’s in my book Light Love Rituals: Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore. The tale is about Penda and Pijo, the girl and boy I found dancing in the wind.
Penda and Pijo Story
A long time ago, a Tsar named Pijo loved a woman named Penda. When Pijo found out she had been kidnapped, he wanted to search for her, but he couldn’t leave his kingdom. He sent carrier pigeons with messages asking his loyal subjects if they’d seen Penda. He also asked a brave, trusted soldier to look for her. The man left on a hot summer day and searched for her well into winter.
Far from his homeland, he met an old woman and eleven old men sitting on the cold ground by a well. The old woman struggled to rise, so the soldier helped her, then lifted the bucket of water from the well to give her a drink.
She said, “I’m Baba Marta (Grandmother March), and these are my brothers, the other eleven months of the year. Because you’ve been kind to me, you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
Soon the soldier discovered the house where Penda was held prisoner. He untied her and was going to take her home, when the man who kidnapped her returned. They fought for many hours. The soldier tired and feared his strength would fail. He jabbed once more and killed the bad man, then collapsed. Penda gave him a drink of water.
“Our journey back will take a long time,” she said. “I must let Pijo know I’m safe.” She wrote a note and placed it inside a tube. With a white thread, she tied it to the leg of a carrier pigeon Pijo had sent, then released the bird.
Along the way, the bird scraped its leg on a branch. Blood had stained the thread by the time the bird finally reached Pijo. When he read the note, he was so happy. He tied the blood-stained thread to his shirt until Penda returned safely.
That’s one story about why we use red and white to make martenitsi even today. There are many others.
Those Pesky Insects
Spring also means the arrival of insects. In our current work in progress, 77 ½ Magical, Healing Herbs, we’ve discovered several plants that are insect repellents.
But more than that, there’s also a plant that kills mosquitoes and their larva. It’s called Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). Its seeds are sticky. A way to get rid of mosquitoes is to toss seeds into the water where mosquitoes breed. The seeds not only emit a substance toxic to the larvae, but they also attract mosquitoes. The sticky, gummy substance binds the mouths of the mosquitoes to the seed.
Happy Baba Marta Day! Blessings and happiness to you all.