One thing that I noticed quite quickly as I landed in Sofia was that many people were wearing either red and white cloth bracelets or what looked like small red and white tassels on their jackets. Were these the colors of the new spring fashion collections in Sofia? Did they refer to some Bulgarian sports team I was unaware of? Some cause in search of awareness? Was this a nation of Cincinnati Reds fans?
It was none of these. These red and white bracelets, tassels, and small cloth dolls were part of an old tradition based on Baba Marta [Баба Марта] – or Grandmother March – and is a tradition celebrated in both Bulgaria and Romania. Baba Marta is in a small way somewhat like Punxsutawney Phil [the groundhog on Groundhog Day in the U.S.] in that they both have some sway over the arrival of spring. In the case of Baba Marta, she is a feisty and unpredictable grandmother whose moods affect the weather – depending on whether her disposition is sunny or frosty.
In Bulgaria, Baba Marta’s day is celebrated on March 1, when people exchange the red and white bracelets [martenitsi or мартеници] with their family and friends. The colors are meant to symbolize good life and good health – but the main objective of this tradition is to herald the coming spring, and with it, a reprieve from the cold winter. When the warmer spring has finally arrived, the martenitsi are taken off and tied to a tree.
On my first day in Sofia, the first person to explain this tradition to me, a local I met at a coffee shop near my hotel, gave me a red and white bracelet. As he encouraged me to put it on, he wished me health and success in the coming year. At that moment I felt welcomed to Bulgaria, and lucky that I was there at a time to witness this unique and ancient tradition.