Tuesday, March 1, 2011


There is a custom in the Balkan area according to which every beginning of spring we wear a lace made out of entwining white and red thread. Some wear it on their wrists, like I noticed with my Bulgarian friends and some wear it together with a small decorative object (used to be a small coin or even a button, now the sky is the limit in terms of variety) on their coat’s lapel, as we do in Romania. Some wear it just for a few days and others until the weather gets better. In some areas people wear them until they see the first stork. In others, until they see a blossomed tree and when they take it off, they tie it around a branch.
Even if it became a commercial holiday, in which people just buy and gift these tiny decorative objects, Martisor is already a cultural reflex for Romanians. People make these gifts in order to show appreciation, but it’s such a wide spread practice that women who don’t receive any will wonder why. But as a ritual that marks the beginning of spring, Martisor is also associated with practices of cleansing, of welcoming the new season with a clean house and holiday clothing. In most areas men give Martisor to women and children to the elderly. But there are regions, such as the Eastern part of the country where girls make gifts to boys and they receive gifts on Women’s Day, on the 8th of March.
Initially, the lace was white and black because black was not associated to death and suffering. In later customs, black had been replaced by red, as a symbol of youth, of beauty and vitality. Red is also associated to spring as a new beginning, so the Martisor is a symbol of the succession of the two seasons – one coming and the other one going. Back in the days, mothers used to make Martisor for their children. Later, women and young girls started wearing them as well, as ethnographers explain. Some women wore it as a necklace and men would decorate their hats with them. People even tied them to their doors and roofs so that the house is protected from evil spirits.
There are various superstitions about Martisor. Some say that wearing it protects children from disease and young girls are protected from the blinding rays of the spring sun. The two threads had to be entwined because this action kept the bad luck away. Another superstition is about the “old ladies”. Between the 1st and 9th of March people can pick a day and depending on the weather that day, you can predict how your whole year will be.
This superstition comes from a story that has some historical roots. It says that Dochia, the sister of Decebal (the king of the united tribes that lived on the Romanian territory before the Roman invasion) was courted by a Roman soldier and she didn’t want to marry him. When her brother committed suicide (rather than see his country in the hands of the enemy) she ran away to the mountains. It was the beginning of spring and the weather was very unstable. She tried to disguise herself as a shepherdess and she had lots of sheep skin coats on to keep her warm. But as she was moving upwards on the mountain with her sheep, the weather kept changing and she would take the coats off one by one. At some point, when she was left with barely any clothes on, it suddenly got very cold and she froze. She remained knows as “the old lady Dochia”, although the legend says she was young and beautiful. The first days of spring are named after this legend, to emphasize the instability of the weather during that week.
I was planning for a while now to write a little post about these Eastern European customs, especially because I know we have a few foreign readers and maybe they would enjoy an insight into our cultural practices. As for my fellow citizens, please feel free to complete or correct my accounts. And may all of you have a happy fulfilling spring!

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