If you’re in Romania during the end of February, you’ll notice stands popping up all over selling little red-and-white pieces of jewelry for 1 leu (35 cents). They’re on the roadsides, in the malls, on the subways… everywhere! And they are most definitely not candy canes.
And, if you’re American, you’re probably asking yourself, “What on earth is going on here?!?!” Because the only thing going on in February in America is the Superbowl and a whole lot of snow. (Okay, so I guess we do have President’s Day and Valentine’s Day as well.)
Say “hello” to Mărțișor, a traditional Romanian celebration that goes all the way back to the ancient Roman or even the Dacian (pre-Roman) people of the Carpathian region. It has its roots as a fertility festival, the rebirth of nature, and a celebration of spring. Celebrants would participate by giving and receiving mărțișoare (the small, red-and-white, pieces of jewelry). In ancient times (and yet today in some rural areas) these trinkets were believed to have magical properties, guaranteeing the wearer of a good, blessed, and fertile future. Today, for most people they’re simply a fun way to show you value someone’s friendship.
According to what I’ve been able to find out, the particular cultural rules for who is allowed to give and/or receive a mărțișor changes depending on the region. In some places in Romania, men should always give them and women should always receive them. In other areas, both men and women give them equally, but only to members of the opposite sex. In Maramureș, however, I’ve heard that women always and only give them to men. Yesterday, I was informed by one of my second-grade English students that here in Bucharest, women should never give them but only receive them… and always only from men.
The Wikipedia article has all sorts of interesting information about the history of the colors. Rather than trying to hide my plagiarizing, I figured I’d just go right ahead and copy-and-paste that portion of the article for all of you to enjoy. You can read it below:
Initially, the Mărțișor string used to be called the Year’s Rope (‘’funia anului’’, in Romanian), 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 but also the unity of the contraries: light and dark, warm and cold, life and death. The ‘’Mărțișor’’ is the thread of the days in the year, spun by Baba Dochia (the Old Dochia), or the thread of one’s life, spun at birth by the Fates (Ursitoare). White is the symbol of purity, the sum of all the colours, the light, while Black is the colour of origins, of distinction, of fecundation and fertility, the colour of fertile soil. White is the sky, the Father, while black is the mother of all, Mother Earth.
According to ancient Roman tradition, the ides of March was the perfect time to embark on military campaigns. In this context, it is believed that the red string of Mărțișor signifies vitality, while the white one is the symbol of victory. Red is the colour of fire, blood, and a symbol of life, associated with the passion of women. Meanwhile, white is the colour of snow, clouds, and the wisdom of men. In this interpretation, the thread of a Mărțișor represents the union of the feminine and the masculine principles, the vital forces which give birth to the eternal cycle of the nature. Red and white are also complementary colours present in many key traditions of Daco-Romanian folklore.
George Coşbuc stated that Mărțișor is a symbol of fire and light, and of the Sun. Not only the colours, but also the traditional silver coin hung from the thread are associated with the sun. White, the colour of silver, is also a symbol of power and strength. The round form of the coin is also reminiscent of the Sun, while silver is associated with the Moon. These are just a few of the reasons why the Mărțișor is a sacred amulet.
In Daco-Romanian folklore, seasons are attributed symbolic colours: spring is red, summer is green or yellow, autumn is black, and winter is white. This is why one can also say that the Mărțișor thread, knitted in white and red, is a symbol of passing, from the cold white winter, to the lively spring, associated with fire and life.