I love the fact that Bulgarian people put so much effort into marking the end of winter. In fact they can’t even wait to the end of winter to start celebrating so on the first of March each year they rejoice because it is almost the end of the winter.
I detest winter and for the last fifty or so years I have started to look forward to spring arriving from round about the first week in September. Winters are harsh in the part of Bulgaria where I am going to live but they are usually followed by long hot summers. I can cope with the former if I can count on the latter. So when I get there I will take enormous pleasure from joining in with their anti-freeze customs.
Literally translated, Baba Marta means Grandma March and this is the day that Bulgarians start to feel that the worst of the winter is behind them, as I do myself. Legend has it that Baba Marta is a bad tempered lady who continually bickers with her two brothers but when the sun comes out she smiles. On the first day of March she starts her spring cleaning and when she shakes her mattress the feathers that come out of it fall on Earth like snow – this being the final snowfall of the winter.
On the day of Baba Marta, Bulgarians give each other red and white coloured plaits of wool, ribbons or dolls as a lucky charm to bring good fortune and ward off evil spirits. These are called Martenitsas and they are worn on the clothes or hung in the trees until another sign of spring appears such as the first sighting of a stork, the first blossom, the first new born lamb or the Eurovision Song Contest.
I have noticed that Bulgarian people tend to drink rakia, an often homemade fruit brandy with a high alcohol content, to celebrate this heart-warming day. Just before I bought my house in Malki Chiflik I asked one of the locals what sort of winter I could expect if I went to live there. He told me that they are bitterly cold but they are a very sociable time of year as people gather in each other’s houses and drink rakia to keep warm. He went on to say that the summers are unbearably hot but people gather together on each other’s porches and drink rakia to keep cool. He also told me that in each village as soon as the first stork of the spring is seen everybody stops what they are doing and drinks rakia to celebrate the end of the cold period. In autumn they drink rakia to celebrate the crops having been gathered in and the production of another fine batch of rakia having got underway.
I got the impression that rakia, like the man who told me about these rituals, is drunk every day of the year. I’m sure I will dabble in the traditions of my new country but the celebration of the end of the cold dark winter months is something that I will embrace in full. I would gladly have done the same in Britain but I have never been able to tell when the cold dark winter months have come to an end. I think it was on the twenty seventh of July last year.
A martenitsa moment.