Martenitsa workshop rings in springtime


Features Editor and Online Editor 

Kristen Green '14, Features Editor

By Kristen Green ’14, Features Editor

On Saturday, March 8, students gathered at Slater International Center to celebrate Baba Marta, a Bulgarian tradition that celebrates the beginning of springtime.

Baba Marta, which translates literally to “Grandma March,” is typically celebrated on March 1. On this day, people exchange martenitsi, small trinkets made of red and white yarn. These adornments can be simple—a red and white twisted bracelet, for example, or more complicated. In Bulgaria, and in other Baltic countries such as Romania, Albania, Northern Greece and Moldova, martenitsa are typically given as gifts, and people wear them until a sign of spring appears. Traditionally, this means that people wear them until they see a stork, or a blooming tree. They then pin the martenitsa on the blooming tree.

Oana Diaconescu ’15 explained that the Romanian tradition adds another step to the legend.

“If you put one of these [a martenitsa] on the first blossoming tree you see and you pin it to the tree … there’s something about finding love because of that,” she explained. “And if it falls off on its own it means you’ve found love.”

At the workshop, hosts presented attendees with more intricate martenitsi, before teaching attendees how to make martenitsa of their own. Students began by making a traditional martenitsa in the form of a bracelet, and then learned to make martenitsa that resembled tied dolls, called Pizho and Penda, another traditional form.

Pizho, the male form of the doll, is usually made in white, while Penda, the female form, distinguished by her skirt, is typically made from red yarn.

The red and white colors of martenitsa are often debated, but students at the workshop explained that the red may stand for rebirth, while the white stands for newness. Woven together, the red and white symbolize a wish for good health and form a color scheme reflecting the new spring season.

Although there are various stories surrounding the origins of the tradition, Bulgarian students at the event discussed a legend concerning the founding of Bulgaria as one basis for the martinitsi. After the Bulgars emerged victorious against the Byzantines in the Battle of Ongal in the seventh century, the Bulgar Khan Asparuh sent eagles (or pigeons, by some accounts) with white threads tied to their talons to announce his victory. The white threads became bloody during the birds’ flight, creating the basis for the first martenitsa.

Event attendees ate Eastern European dishes such as banitsa, a pastry made with feta cheese and phyllo dough, as well as sandwiches of lukanka (a type of Bulgarian salami), lyutenitsa (a pepper and eggplant spread) and kashkaval (a popular Bulgarian cheese made from cow’s milk). The hosts also offered sweet sandwiches of butter and quince jam that the grandmother of  Iglika Atanassova ’15 made and sent from Bulgaria for the event.

Students who planned the event talked about the specific ways Baba Marta (or Martisor, in Romania) is celebrated within their home countries.

“It’s like here on St. Valentine’s Day when everyone gives each other cards,” explained Atanassova, adding that the tradition is especially strong in elementary school, when each student brings a martenitsa for every peer in their class.

Simona Boyadzhiyska ’16, another planner of Saturday’s event who is also from Bulgaria, said that she always looks forward to the holiday festivities.

“Everybody wears the red and white bracelets, pins, hairbands and even clothes. The cities get decorated in red and white too,” she said. “In my city, for example, they wrap the trees in red and white, and it’s all very beautiful and cheerful. At school, everybody exchanges them [martenitsa], wishing each other health and good luck. By the end of the day, we all end up having more than 20 bracelets on our arms.”

Atanassova also said that now young children can find martenitsa made in the image of their favorite cartoon characters.

“My sister had Tinker Bell when I called her the other day, and my brother had Angry Birds,” she said.

Despite this trend, Boyadzhiyska says that she enjoyed the tradition of hand making the martinisti with her mother as a young girl.

“My mother and I have always preferred to make them, especially the ones for our family, ourselves, as they become more interesting and more personal,” she said.  “And of course we have fun while making them.”

Diaconescu explained that in Romania, men are the ones expected to make and gift martenitsi.

“It’s a big deal,” she said. “My dad has to go visit everyone in the family.”

Currently, there are five Bulgarian students and two Romanian students at Wellesley. Those who planned the event explained that they wanted to bring to Wellesley a light-hearted celebration of the transition to spring.

“Maybe because we realized that with the growing Bulgarian community, it’s easier to get in the mood again,” Atanassova said of why the students decided to plan the event this year. “I feel it’s a very nice tradition. It’s nice for people to hear that spring is coming and that it’s going to get warmer.”

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