In Bulgaria, March 1 is Baba Marta Day. Baba Marta–Grandmother March–is the mythical personification of the change from winter to spring, and she is just as changeable as the weather can be at this time of year! To appease and honor her, Bulgarians wear a martenitsa, red-and-white talismans usually made of yarn, in the form of bracelets or of little dolls. Martenitsi (plural) are given between friends and family members, or even given to someone as a way of saying you want to get to know them better. You NEVER make or buy a martenitsa for yourself; it has to be gifted.
Bracelet-style martenitsi are easy to make–a strand of red, a strand of white yarn, tied at the end and twisted hand over hand, then adorned with a few beads in the center. Styles abound, and even in Bulgaria, not everyone makes them by hand. They are sold in markets. In fact, martenitsa-making for Bulgarian demand has, in recent years, been outsourced to China!
Making the yarn dolls, called Pizho and Penda (Pizho is the male doll, predominantly white in color; Penda is the female, and usually red), takes a little more work, but not much! Wikihow’s instructions on how to make a yarn doll work beautifully for this craft.
Red and white yarn
Googly eyes optional
1. Before making these dolls, twist a red and a white strand of yarn together like you would to make a bracelet martenitsa, but longer. At the point where you have finished winding your yarn around the cardboard and knotted it off, and would be about to tie a shorter strand through all the loops to make the figures’ “heads,” use one end of the twined yarn to tie Pizho‘s, and the other end to tie Penda‘s. Then your dolls will be tied together and can be pinned decoratively, via this twined strand, to your coat or sweater.
2. Wind yarn around a piece of cardboard that is the same size as you want your dolls to be. This is very much like making a pom-pom. Make sure to knot this winding to itself on the first, and last, pass.
3. Cut the loops at the bottom of the doll free so it is easier to separate strands for arms and legs. Now pull out some strands at either side of the doll to serve as arms. (Check on both sides when you do this so that you are making a nice, neat “part”.) These will be shortened some when you tie them at the wrists and trim them.
4. Where each yarn doll is tied at the neck and waist, use the contrasting color. It is traditional to make an X-shape with the yarn between these two areas (almost like suspenders).
5. Separate the bottom loops for Pizho‘s legs, tying contrasting color at his ankles. For Penda, simply trim the loops at the bottom, without separating them into bundles; this is her skirt. These figures can be decorated with ribbon, with extra yarn for hair, little felt hats, googly eyes or beads.
When you have made, gifted and received, your martenitsi, the fun is not over. Wear your martenitsa on your coat or your wrist until you see the first sign of spring–a bud, a leaf–and then hang your martenitsa where you found that first bit of the new season. In Bulgaria, budding trees are festooned with red and white–the best way to celebrate the end of the winter blues!