To Your Health
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Bulgaria
- Personal Essay
Many customs and traditions in Bulgaria are related to hopes for good health. When you make a toast, you say "Na zdrave," or "To health." On your birthday, friends, colleagues, and even perfect strangers tell you "to be full of life and health." On Easter, women make the sign of a cross on the foreheads of children with a dyed-red hard-boiled egg, again for health. Many of the traditional holiday celebrations feature some custom related to encouraging fertility for crops and animals in the coming year. One of my favorite Bulgarian holidays is also related to wishes for good health.
Baba Marta, or Grandmother March, is observed on March 1. A few weeks before this holiday, bookshops and newspaper stands burst into bloom as merchants set up their displays of red-and-white martenitsi, or "little Marches." Martenitsi are little objects made of red and white thread or yarn twisted into all sorts of shapes, patterns, and forms. Traditional, simple ones are just tassels or bracelets, and others take the shapes of hearts, dolls, or characters to be pinned to clothes. Bulgarians, especially children, crowd in front of the displays to admire the designs and to ponder which ones they'll buy and which ones they hope to receive.
Baba Marta is largely about giving these little threads, whose colors represent good health. When March 1—still very much winter here—finally comes, the giving begins. Nothing gets done at school that day: Students are too busy exchanging martenitsi, giving them to their teachers, admiring all the designs, and counting each other's collections. "Chestit Baba Marta," they say as they give each other the threads—that's "Happy Grandmother March."
By the end of the day, I looked as if a red thread factory had exploded on me—I was pinned, tied, and braceleted beyond recognition. This would all be fine if it were just a matter of going home and putting away the martenitsi until the next year. But the custom is that you must wear the martenitsi until you see a stork. Yes, a stork. These big black-and-white birds of baby-bringing lore are very real in Bulgaria. The birds are all over the place, and they build huge nests. However, they spend their winters farther south, so the wait for a stork can be a bit long, especially if spring is late in coming a particular year.
After the red-and-white storm of the first day, I decided to minimize my martenitsi and cut back to one on my wrist and one on my backpack. My students seemed to do the same, and the hubbub died down a bit as everybody settled in for the stork waiting game. We don't have storks right in my town, but they inhabit the nearby villages, so when I took a bus to a bigger town in the area, I had my eyes peeled for evidence that the birds had returned. No luck. As the days and weeks dragged on, storks became a hot topic of conversation around town. "Have you seen one yet?" was the constant question. "No, but my brother saw one in the village," came the reply. Those not yet fortunate enough to have seen one sighed, wishing they had that kind of luck. When I went with students on a field trip to a slightly warmer, more stork-populated region, the entire bus ride was devoted to stork-related conversation and staring out the windows, hoping to sight a bird. A false alarm caused quite a commotion. Another American teacher told me about the stork craziness at his school: A student came late to class one day. When asked for an explanation of why he was late, the student just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Stork!"
By the end of March, I was sick and tired of all this stork business, not to mention wearing the unraveling bracelet day in and day out. Why not just take off the bracelet and forget about the birds? Well, when winter is this long and cold, any custom that puts the focus on spring is very welcome. Besides, when you finally spot a stork, you've got more work to do related to martenitsi. The task: Tie your tassels on a blooming tree (preferably a fruit tree, to encourage the tree's fertility), or put the tassels under a rock. The story goes that what sort of year you will have, in terms of health, is determined by the way the creatures that live under the rock carry out their job down there. Nobody could explain actually how to read the signs related to the insects' work, however, so I was a little doubtful. I was leaning toward going with the tree method of martinitsi disposal, since bugs and rocks aren't really my thing.
I had all but given up, telling myself I'd take off my bracelet if I hadn't seen a stork by April 1. Other people I knew had long since given up, saying the bracelets were just too silly, but I liked storks, so I was hanging in there. On March 28, I woke up from a nap during my bus ride home from the capital and looked out the window. There were two beautiful, huge storks soaring across a bright-green field. The sky couldn't have been bluer or the blossoming trees better proof that spring had finally come.
When I got home, I found the first blooming tree I could and tied my bracelet to it. Later, I told a Bulgarian friend about my stork-sighting. I was pretty excited, and she just smiled as I told the story. When I finished, she said, "Well, it's even better if you see them flying—it means you'll be even healthier this year." I should have known there would be yet another health-related twist to the custom!