martenitsa1When I began work at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Secretary General, Sir John Priestman, invited me in for a welcoming chat. Similarly, when I began work in the European Commission the then Secretary General, David Williamson (now Lord Williamson of Horton) invited me in to say hallo and welcome me to the institution. There can be few people busier than Secretaries-General (as I know myself now!) and yet they had carved time out of their busy days to see me, a young greenhorn. I saw it as an extraordinary example of good management and now, as a Secretary General myself, I am determined to see all of the Committee’s new officials personally to welcome them on board. So this morning I saw a new Bulgarian colleague, Yulian, who works in the translation service and he brought with him a gift that has touched me deeply. The Martenitsa is a small wrist band, woven from red and white cotton, and to be worn from 1 March until 22 March (Mart being the Bulgarian word for March). Baba Marta is a Bulgarian tradition to welcome the spring, and the red and white threads symbolize the wish for good health (white for purity and soul, red for life and passion). I shall wear it proudly, of course. Europe, endless!


  1. In Romania, we also celebrate Martisor (to pronounce ‘Martzishor”)
    It is basically what you received from our new Bulgarian colleague but in a smaller size: we attach to it small symbols of spring and we don’t wear it around the wrist, we ‘pin’ it on the chest. Men offer it to women but lately the trend became reciprocal and the industry is flourishing in creating new symbols. Nevertheless, the traditional ones are flowers, butterflies, etc. and special ones like shamrock and horse shoes which have to be given only inside the family and to beloved ones, so that the luck doesn’t go out…
    Romanian folklore is very rich in legends about the meaning of red and white – winter and summer, snow melting and the blood of life, a beautiful Dacian prince killing an oger and blood mixing with snow, ice and fire, or Baba Dochia punished for having treated badly her daughter-in-law. What is clear is that it remains a strong symbol of spring.
    Some girls wear it for 9 days, other for one month. Also, this week each girl and woman has to pick a day in advance from 1 to 8 and if the day is sunny so will be her year. One cannot cheat waitig for the day itself or looking at the nowadays…
    I’ll wear my Martisor this week too, and I have some Bulgarian ones also, the more, the better, Martisor/Martinitza is a clear case of intercultural dialogue in the Balkans as these old customs were circulated by shepherds accross the region for 2000 years or more. It is also closely associated to snow drops, which in my mind I stil recall growing in my grandma’s garden. And as she seems to want to leave us before soon, I hope to be able to catch a plane late Thursday evening and see her still alive I hope at the end of a difficult surgery, to offer her a Martisor. It may be the last one, who knows, but Spring is full of miracles!

  2. I was really moved by the piece of Martin’s writing on a typical tradition of my country Bulgaria. My reliance on the progress and future of the EU is in that kind of high-ranking officers, who take deeply to heart the details of the intercultural relations.

  3. I was really moved by the piece of Martin’s writing on a typical tradition of my country Bulgaria. My reliance on the development of the EU is in the appreciation of the details of the intercultural relations.

  4. Michael Kelly

    07/03/2009 at 19:19

    Mr Westlake,
    It took a while for your article to circulate all the way to Texas and find me. As an American married to a Bulgarian during March we definitely celebrate Baba Marta here as part of her traditions…who knows…after reading the note from Ana above, perhaps the world will someday be tied together with red and white string.

  5. (:-) thank you Michael

    I did get to Bucharest for 3 days and Martisor is still very kept by all generations. Maybe iit’s the miracle fo this week, but my grandma survived the surgery which is easy in general when one breaks a bone at a younger age, but a close to death experience when one is 82. I broght a bunch of Martisor to spread over to my coleagues around here. This beginning of spring tradition was actually allowing people to change a bit their mindset in a quite sad context with this economic crisis: I heard on TV from a political analysis (so cannot say it’s stone written) that only in Romania about 1.000.000 SMEs might shut down with the crisis, and they are basically the blood of the economy. So if a red and white string can bring some hope, why not.

  6. Yonko from Frankfurt

    24/03/2009 at 20:05

    The white and the red string,called later Martenitsa,is an old bulgarian habit,that was brought from the bulgarians into the Balcan peninsula in the 7th century.
    In any parts of China there is such an old habit,but probably not with the same big meaning as in Bulgaria.

  7. Very interesting post, I love finding a good quality blog thats not full of rubbish. I would love to do a link exchange.

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