It is year 680, just a year after Bulgarians have arrived in the Danube Delta from what is now Ukraine. After they’ve established a fortified camp on Peuce island, worried Byzantine emperor Constantine IV sets off with a land army and a fleet to prevent the forecoming invasion. Bulgarians under the command of khan Asparukh are defending themselves on Peuce, while Byzantine emperor’s health suffers from the swamp climate, so he leaves the siege. The rumors spread in the army, that emperor has fled, soldiers start to panic and desert. Khan Asparukh pursues the army and wins the battle of Ongala. To deliver the news of victory to the main camp, he send a pigeon with white threads tight to its leg. The pigeon gets wounded by an arrow, but heroically arrives to Peuce with white threads stained with its own blood.
What does it have to do with the spring? It is one of given (by Bulgarians, of course) origins of the tradition of Martenitsas (rom.Mărţişor), which can be found in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and northern Greece. In the first days of March people give each other bracelets and adornments made of white and red yarn. The receiver should wear them on hand or attach them to their close and keep them until the first signs of the spring – blooming birch tree or a stork coming back from the south. Some also add seeing a swallow, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer, does it?
What has to be done after first signs of warmer days are spotted – you need to take off the bracelet and hang it on the blooming tree, sharing the happiness and health that you were experiencing during the period you were wearing it. Another option is to put it under a stone and checking after few days if there is some insect underneath. If it’s a larva then we’ll find happiness in the forecoming year. If it’s ants we still will find our luck, but must work hard for it. Worse omen is when we find spiders underneath…
A good year, but also some short-term bliss is provided by one of the Romanian versions of martenitsas – where they are in form of necklaces with a coin attached. After seing a sign of the spring you have to trade the coin for red wine and white cheese (colours of martenitsa) and consume them due to temporary and future happiness.
The custom of martenitsas is widely connected to Baba Marta (rom. Baba Dochia), grumpy and moody old lady, personificating coming spring. Martenitsas are worn to plead the old lady and bring on the warmer days.
As one of the Romanian legends tell, the son of Baba Dochia, Dragobete, married a girl against the will of his mother. Angry and evil gammer sends her daughter-in-law to wash a piece of a dirty wool in the mountain river, and return only when it turns white. Though cunning lady gives her not dirty, but black wool. Desparate and freezing girl stars to cry, when a bearded old man appears (a God in disguise) and hands her a red flower, adising her to wash the laundry with it. The wool turns to white and happy girl comes back home to her husband. After hearing the tale Baba Dochia thinks that the spring came – hence the man had fresh flower. She takes her herd and wearing 12 coats sets of for the mountains. It gets warmer on the way, so she gradually leaves coats behind, but the tricky March weather turns around and evil Baba Dochia freezes.
Another Romanian custom tells about 9 coats, which were taken off by Baba Dochia. The coats stand for the first days of March – from 1st to 9th. In the end of February women choose one of these nine days as an omen – the weather that will come on this day will mark their happiness in the forecoming year.
The origins of the whole martenitsa and Baba Marta/Dochia celebrations aren’t clear – are their Roman (since 1st of March was devoted to Mars), Tracian or other. The truth probably lays in the middle, with each culture contributing a bit in its own way, but these is why the folklore connected to the coming of the spring is so reach. And I hope the recepies will turn effective!