Martisor and Babele, two Romanian popular traditions fighting winter, conjuring spring
March 1 is the day Romanians celebrate ‘Martisor’, an old tradition related to spring arrival and warm weather, also symbolizing love, respect and friendship.
The word Martisor is the diminutive of martie, the Romanian name for March, and thus literally means “little March”.
Martisor is also the name of the trinket with the red and white string with hanging tassel customarily given on the 1st day of March.
Traditionally boys give to girls, as gifts, the ‘Martisor’ symbol; nevertheless, there are several regions in Romania where the girls are the ones to offer „martisoare” to the boys.
Offering this trinket or talisman is an old custom, symbol of the coming spring and it is believed that his or her bearer will be strong and healthy for the rest of the year.
Initially, the “Martisor” string was called the Year’s Rope, made by black and white wool threads, representing the 365 days of the year. The Year’s Rope was the link between summer and winter, black and white representing the opposition and the unity of opposites: light and dark, warm and cold, life and death.
Traditionally, both women and men used to wear Martisor pinned to their jackets and blouses, close to the heart, until the last day of March, when they would hang it to a fruit-tree twig. There is also the tradition that, after wearing it for a certain period of time, people would buy red wine and sweet cheese with the coin, according to a belief that their faces would remain beautiful and white as cheese and rubicund as the wine, all year long.
In modern times, and especially in urban areas, the “Martisor” lost most of its talisman properties and became more a symbol of friendship, love, appreciation and respect, but also a real marketing industry, with people queuing to buy the lovely talismans to offer to the dear ones. Wide fairs are held throughout the country on Martisor, with craftsmen, designers and freelance artists competing to lure customers to buy their original Martisor pieces, some of them handmade talismans or original jewels.
The snowdrop is also related to Martisor and also symbol for spring in Romania.
The traditional ‘Martisor’ is thought to be a silver coin with a red/white cord, made by girls and tied by the hand, dating back to 1905. Others say that the oldest ‘Martisor’ dates back in 1879 and was made as a silver heart another one depicts a flying swallow.
Legend of the red-white string: blood onto the snow
A legend of ‘Martisor’ says the Sun, transformed into a young man, came down to the village, but was taken away and locked by an evil dragon. Everything went sad: birds did not sing anymore, springs were not flowing, children did not laugh anymore. Nobody dared to confront the dragon, until one day when a young man went to the dragon’s castle and fought him. After defeating the dragon, the Sun was released and everyone was happy, as nature revived. However, the brave young man did not live to see the spring. Blood poured out of his wounds onto the snow. That is why young people started weaving two threads, red and white, and to offer them to the loved ones.
Babele – how’s your day? Warm or cold?
Along with the first day of March, Romanians celebrate an ancestral tradition, called “Babele/Old Women”. According to the feast, you have to choose a day from March 1st to March 9th. If the day will be warm and sunny, you’ll be in good train all year long. If the day is cold, rainy and gloomy, the year will not be so good for you.
Ethnographers say that the “old ladies” myth is one of the most important in the Romanian tradition. Also called Baba Dochia, the myth is closely linked to the arrival of spring, March 1st and to the Mărțișor.
There are many versions of this myth, whose name seems to come from the Byzantine calendar that is on March 1 when the Holy Martyr Evdokia was celebrated. In Romanian mythology, Baba Dochia, or The Old Dokia, is a character identified with the return of spring.
In archaic conception, Dochia is celebrated as a maternal, agrarian and lunar deity. The moon itself, as deity, has an evil significance, being the prototype of the impulsive woman who patronizes night, winter and cold, unlike the Sun, the understanding paternal deity, the protector of the daylight, summer and life.
There are a couple of legends linked to this period of the year. One of them says that Dochia was even the daughter (or sister) of Decebal, king of the Dacians. Dochia seeks refuge in the Carpathian Mountains in order to avoid marrying Traian, the conqueror of Dacia. The daughter of Decebal, chased by Trajan’s men, turned herself into a rock, thus escaping the slavery humiliation.
Some say that Dochia had a son, Dragobete or Dragomir who married a girl. Dochia mistreats her daughter-in-law sending her to pick berries in the woods at the end of February. God helps the girl to fulfill the task given by the old woman. When Dochia sees the fruits she believes that spring has come and leaves for the mountains with her son and her flock. She is dressed with 9 sheepskin coats but as it rains the clothes get heavier and Dochia has to get rid of the skins. Thus, Dochia perishes together with her son. The sheepskin coats have a correspondent day from 1 to 9 March.
Other legend says that Dochia takes her son, Dragobete, with her on the mountain. The boy freezes, including his running nose. The old lady gets upset thinking her son is playing the flute.
Others say that Mărțișor, the folk name of the month of March, hears that Dochia is spreading bad rumours and injuries about him, so he is borrowing two frosty days from Faur (the month of February) to punish the defiant old lady.
Some say her spirit haunts every year around those days, bringing snowstorms and cold weather.
Babele days are counted differently from one region to another, For instance, in Muntenia, there are 12 babe, while in Maramureș there is the old custom of “door knocking” to chase winter away. Another custom is the old lay’s baptism, meaning sick children are baptized again with a different name to chase away the evil and illness. Here, Baba Dochia is also called Odochia.
In some regions of Moldavia, they pick the ‘baba’ day after your birthday.
In Ardeal, babele are also called Vântoase/ the Windies and in Muntenia there is the habit to pick up an old lady from the village. If the chosen day is sunny, that means the old lady is nice and kind. If it’s cold, rainy or windy, the old lady is mean and is to blame for the bad weather.