Tokens of the New Beginnings / Geographies of Tradition
SPRING COMING CELEBRATIONS
No matter how different we are from each other, no matter how different the cultures we come from are, our emotions and feelings spring from the same “groundwater”. And just as through a smile we all understand openness, human warmth or joy, so we associate the coming of spring with the rebirth of nature or the explosion of life. However, its ways of expression vary: therein lies the beauty of cultural diversity.
One spring, thousands of ways to celebrate it.
For Americans, spring comes with the vernal equinox. For Romanians, however, spring comes with Mărțișor. Specifically, with the special day that is March 1st.
But what exactly is Mărțișor? Well, this word refers to two things: to the cultural custom widespread in Romania on the occasion of the 1st of March, and to the object around which this custom was constructed.
An element of intangible cultural heritage, Mărţişor can be considered a national or, at least, regional brand. It was recorded by UNESCO, in 2017, as belonging to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, following the candidacy of a multinational dossier (Cultural Practices Associated with the 1st of March - Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, the Republic of Moldova).
Mărțișor is an old custom spread throughout all of Romanian territory, and practiced in other areas of southeastern Europe. This habit has a double affective meaning: on one hand, you share the joy of the beginning of spring and, on the other hand, you communicate affection for the person to whom you give this object.
To express these things, Romanians usually give each other a Mărțișor on March 1st. For many years now, it has been established that boys and men express love or appreciation for their special someone through this sentimental object. There is also the more profane custom, so to speak, more out of social conformity, of giving a Mărțișor: a co-worker may distribute a Mărțișor to each of his female colleagues. So might a student to his classmates and, obviously, to his favorite teachers.
But let's see first what a Mărțișor looks like.
Today, Mărțișors are certainly much more varied and come in much more creative forms than they did in days of yore. From the simple string, perhaps its most primitive, archaic image, the Mărțișor has taken various archetypal forms such as the wheel, the labyrinth, or the axis mundi. We have now reached the Mărțișor from which emoticons smile or stare at us, the Mărțișor as a jewel or as a luxury object or the Mărțișor representing a a character from Western culture (a Disney character, for example).
The object that we designate today as being a Mărțișor seems to satisfy many functions, aspirations, or desires of the present. To understand its role, we should examine the day of March 1st and imagine that the Mărțișor object is just a simple element in a very complex network of beliefs, desires, or habits crystallized over time.
Long ago, on the 1st of Match, mothers would tie a silver or gold coin around their children's necks or wrists. They tied it either to a red cord or to a cord woven from a thread of red silk and another of white silk. The rich – a rare occurence in the Romanian village - used strings made of gold and silver threads. People believed that the child who would wear the Mărțișor would be healthy, “clean as silver”, and lucky. Ethnographers, ethnologists or anthropologists talk about an apotropaic function of Mărțișor. “Apotropaic”, what a word...Frightening to our ears! But it means, in fact, that the object has the power to protect from charms or diseases. The Mărțișor tied to the hand or neck has the shape of a circle. Not only in The Lord of the Rings or in Harry Potter does the circle have the power to protect the person inside it from the forces of darkness. Mărțișor, therefore, fulfilled, above all, a magical function. Thus, not only children were protected from evil, through this talisman, but so was the hen in the nest, the sheep in the stable, or…the trees in the peasant’s garden.
Like any magical object, it was subject to strict rules, as magical objects can only be used wisely. They are loaded with numen - a force that can have a boomerang effect if uncontrolled: it immediately turns against you. Respecting this unwritten law, in certain areas of Romania, the mother tied the Mărțișor to the child on the morning of March 1st, before sunrise. The little one wore it on his or her hand or neck for 12 days, then tied it to the branch of a young tree. If that tree was doing well, it meant that the child would also enjoy health, prosperity and luck in his life. In other places, the Mărțișor was worn until the blackthorn or hawthorn blossomed. Others wore it until the return of the storks or until the 9th of March, when, in the Christian calendar, the 40 martyrs are honored.
Photo credit: Vladimir Bulza
In some places in Romania, maidens or wives also wore Mărțișor for…cosmetic reasons. For beautiful skin. It was said that “Whoever wears a Mărțișor/is scorched by the sun no more”. At the end of March, they “discarded the Mărțișor”, that is, they untied it from their wrists, tied the cord to the branch of a freshly blooming tree, and with the coin bought white bread, or curd, or wine. It was believed that the face of the girl who followed this ritual exactly turned white as curd and rosy as wine. Of course, following the rules of sympathetic magic to the very end, the coin worn provided the wearer much-desired abundance. Other girls wore the Mărțișor until they heard the cuckoo singing or saw the first flock of storks in the sky.
The history of Mărțișor, in short
As an object, the Mărțișor has its own history. At one point, the custom of wearing or giving a Mărțișor on March 1st moved from village to town. Around 1800, townspeople felt the desire to attach a coin to the ancient white-red string and to write the year they were in on one of its faces: 1801, 1802, 1803...In time, the Mărțișor would take on new and newer shapes: a gold keychain, a silver or double from which various symbols of luck hang – a piglet, a chimney sweep, four-leaf clover, a playing card, a dice. Later, living hearts, inflamed with love, will feel the need to express themselves: the famous hearts appear, with variable textures or sizes. During the communist period, Romanians gave each Mărțișors made at the national Arts&Crafts Fund: all kinds of flowers made of textile material, packed in transparent boxes.
As we can see, Mărțișor completely loses its magical connotations, being completely absorbed by Eros. We currently encounter two parallel social phenomena: on one hand, in consumer society, around March 1st, any object can be sold under the pretext of being a Mărțișor. On the other hand, in terms of Mărțișors that still bear a resemblance to the “traditional Mărțișor”, we see a wonderful variety that can only make us happy.
They are the expression of human creativity and spontaneity, and satisfy all tastes tastes: the lover of archetypal symbols can give a Mărțișor with a Celtic cross or a wheel of the world; the husband can declare to his wife that she is the most wonderful partner (through a funny diploma); Internet users can send emoticons or a Mărțișor made from...the keys of an old and faithful computer.
Also on March 1st, Romanians go beyond giving each other a Mărțișor: they choose their “hag”.That is, a day between March 1st and 9th, which, depending on the weather, can tell you how the whole year will be. The custom is linked to a Romanian mythological character - Baba Dochia, in whose story we encounter intertwined elements of Mărțișor.
In the Orthodox Christian calendar, on March 1st, the Holy Martyr Evdochia is honored. The Romanian peasant, inspired by this name, created an alternative biography for her. In Romanian fairy tales, the hag appears as an ambiguous character: she can do good to the main hero, but she could also harm to him, impeding him, making it difficult for him to reach his goal. Ethnologists see in Baba Dochia an embodiment of the negative, destructive principle. There are many variations of her legend. It is said that Baba Dochia “was a very diligent woman, but also very cruel and harsh, because she was born under the sign of the scorpion. She directed her harshness and wickedness especially towards her daughter-in-law, for Baba Dochia had a daughter-in-law, whom she greatly oppressed”.
In some versions of the legend it is said that the hag was transformed from an ice sheet into a rock: “And then God, because she had turned against him and because she wanted to kill her daughter-in-law, turned her, as punishment, into a stone cliff, which can still be seen today on a mountaintop, under which a clear spring of water flows, from which people drink. And along with her, he turned her sheep into rocks, which stand around her and which, seen from a distance, look like white and black sheep, that is, exactly as they looked when they were alive”.
One hag, two hags...12 hags
Romanians of yore believed that Baba Dochia or Baba Marta, as she was also called, has 9 or 12 capricious and bad days like her: The Hag’s Days/Baba Dochia’s Days. These began, in some areas, even on Mărțișor Day, on March 1st, in others 9 or 12 days before. The symbolic number 9 or 12 is related to the layers that the hag discards, one after the other. This is where the “wild” logic intervenes, mythical, difficult for our rational mind to understand:: if the Hag’s Days fell before March 1st, people believed that it would be a spring favorable to plowing and that people could sow earlier. If they fell after March 1st, it meant that they would have a gloomy spring and that the peasants would not be able to sow anytime soon.
After Baba Dochia’s Days, other, warmer days follow, dedicated to the Elders or Saints. The women chose one day from the Hag’s, and the men from the Elders’. Following the same logic of magical, sympathetic thinking, the day you chose represented you: capricious or not, angry or gentle, good or bad.
Beliefs, ritual practices, March 1st predictions
The day of March 1st, also called Baba Dochia, Baba Marta or Head of Spring, gave rise to predictions of the future and prescribed certain taboos, minor unwritten rules, which would ensure health and prosperity if followed. It was believed that if March 1st was a beautiful day, it meant that the weather would be nice all spring and summer. And if it was ugly, on the contrary, a gloomy spring and a capricious summer would follow. On March 1st, housewives refrained from working on anything. Thus, “they softened Baba Dochia's anger”, they tempered the frost that threatened their future harvests and no one in the house became sick with vomiting, nor was anyone in danger of drowning. The women could still do their spinning because Baba Dochia had also gone with the sheep, taking her fork and wool for spinning. Also on March 1st, girls or women bearing the names of Evdochia, Dochia or Dochița celebrated their onomastic days.
Spring Holidays in America
We have seen what happens in Romania with the arrival of spring. But how do Americans greet the renewal of time, nature’s return to life?
In America, the first day of spring, also known as the vernal equinox, falls between March 19th and 21st. Among the social, symbolic practices of Americans we encounter some customs that take place ritually, year after year. We can integrate them all under the phrase Spring Coming.
With the occasion of the vernal equinox, many Americans gather in the morning in Columcille Megalith Park in Pennsylvania, around the famous sacred stones from Stonehenge, and contemplate the sunrise, with modesty and veneration.
Photo Source: www.interestingpennsylvania.com/2019/03/columcille-megalith-park.html
Also on the day of the vernal equinox we find the Snowman Burning Festival, which marks the end of winter and the arrival of warm spring, a source of joy. This festival first took place in 1971. The Unicorn Hunters team at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) decided that the festival would take place annually on the first astronomical day of spring. According to some, it was inspired by the German Rose Sunday Festival. Americans believe that the smoke that dissipates in the air from the ritual burning of the Snowman will drive away blizzards and help spring arrive faster. Meanwhile, this custom has been diversified: The Snowman can be made of paper, wire or wood, and is painted to be as realistic as possible, to look like a snowman as much as possible.
Photo source: https://happydays365.org/snowman-burning-day/snowman-burning-day-march/#/?playlistId=0&videoId=0
We might mention other holidays that either precede or follow the first day of spring, which, on a symbolic level, are related to its coming.
For example, Groundhog Day, celebrated annually on February 2nd. Americans believe that this rodent has the magical power of predicting the weather. Legend has it that if the animal sees its shadow, six cold weeks will follow, and if not, spring will arrive earlier. According to tradition, this custom is specific to Pennsylvania, arriving there in the nineteenth century with the first German immigrants.
Photo source: https://dayfinders.com/groundhog-day/
Another American holiday is Cherry Blossom Day (April 1st). It is best known in Washington D.C. The beautiful cherry trees that guard the capital of the United States were received as a gift from Japan, from Tokyo, a hundred years ago. On this day, locals or tourists who stop here can sit on the specially arranged benches and enjoy the view and smell of cherry blossoms.
Photo source: https://myexclusivevacations.com/vacation/washington-dc-cherry-blossom-festival/
All these Romanian or American traditions, old or new, the Mărțișor which protects from evil spirits, the Snowman ritually burned, the groundhog endowed with magical powers that allow him to predict what the weather will be like in the new agricultural year, the fragrant cherry trees received as a gift from the Japanese, each demonstrates in its own way the inexpressible joy that the spectacle of nature revived brings to our souls. With it, the joy of loving and being loved, of giving and receiving what is offered to us. We are what we give. Or, as the Romanians say: From one gift to another, paradise is born! Give, and you shall receive.
Text by Ciprian Voicilă, sociologist at the National Museum of Romanian Peasant.
English translation by Andreea Scridon.
About the author
Ciprian Voicilă (b. 1978, Buzau) is a sociologist at
the National Museum of the Romanian
Peasant, and has a BA degree in
psychology and sociology. He has published articles and essays in various newspapers and cultural magazines ("Dilema Veche", "Cultura", "Observator cultural", Ziarul "Lumina", "Adevărul literar", "Viața românească", "Atitudini", "Permanențe"). He is the author or co-author of the volumes: “Street sweepers. 15 homeless biographies ”(Martor Publishing House, 2016); “The Saints Next to Us” (Areopag Publishing House, 2014); "The Zaica Experiment" (Meridiane Publishing House, 2000); "Noah's Ark - from the Neolithic to Coca-Cola" (Ars Docendi Publishing House, 2002); "Small and medium stories" (Curtea Veche Publishing House, 2004); „The book with euri” (Curtea Veche Publishing House, 2005); "The book with grandparents" (Humanitas Publishing House, 2007); "Angels, dragons and witches" (Humanitas Publishing House, 2008); "Windows in Bucharest and their stories" (Peter Pan Publishing House, 2015).
Photos from the Annual Fair of Mărțișor organized by the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest and from the Ethnological Archive of the same museum: