This is an old pagan tradition and remains almost unchanged today. The common belief is that by wearing the red and white colours of the martenitsa people ask Baba Marta for mercy. They hope that it will make winter pass faster and bring spring. Many people wear more than one martenitsa. They receive them as presents from relatives, close friends and colleagues. Martenitsa is usually worn pinned on the clothes, near the collar, or tied around the wrist. The tradition calls for wearing the martenitsa until the person sees a stork or a blooming tree. The stork is considered a harbinger of spring and as evidence that Baba Marta is in a good mood and is about to retire.
The ritual of finally taking off the martenitsa may be different in the different parts of Bulgaria. Some people would tie their martenitsa on a branch of a fruit tree, thus giving the tree health and luck, which the person wearing the martenitsa has enjoyed himself while wearing it. Others would put the martenitsa under a stone with the idea that the kind of the creature (usually an insect) closest to the token the next day will determine the person's health for the rest of the year. If the creature is a larva or a worm, the coming year will be healthy, and full of success. The same luck is associated with an ant, the difference being that the person will have to work hard to reach success. If the creature near the token is a spider, then the person is in trouble and may not enjoy luck, health, or personal success.
The martenitsa is also a stylized symbol of Mother Nature. At that early-spring/late-winter time of the year, Nature seems full of hopes and expectations. The white symbolizes the purity of the melting white snow and the red symbolizes the setting of the sun which becomes more and more intense as spring progresses. These two natural resources are the source of life. They are also associated with the male and female beginnings.
Wearing one or more martenitsi is a very popular Bulgarian tradition. The martenitsa symbolises new life, conception, fertility, and spring. The time during which it is worn is meant to be a joyful holiday commemorating health and long life. The colours of the martenitsa are interpreted as symbols of purity and life, as well as the need for harmony in Nature and in people's lives.
Khan Kubrat's (632–668) five sons went hunting accompanied by their sister Huba. When they reached the Danube river they saw a silver stag. Mesmerized, the men did not dare shoot at it. The stag crossed over to the opposite bank of the river showing them a ford.
A bird flew bringing them bad tidings. Their father, the founder of Old Great Bulgaria was on his deathbed. In his last hours Kubrat's last will was to tell his offspring—Bayan, Kotrag, Asparukh, Kuber and Altsek—not to sever the still tenuous link between the different Bulgarian tribes. His sons vowed to defend Bulgaria.
Soon after their father’s death, the Khazars invaded the land. The Khazar's Khan Ashina conquered the capital Phanagoria. Huba, Kubrat's daughter, was captured by Ashina. Hoping to give her brothers a chance to freedom, Huba attempted suicide but was stopped by the guards.
Her brothers kept their vows in different ways. Bayan stayed with his sister and recognized the supremacy of the Khazars. Kotrag went northwards, to the River Volga, while Asparukh, Kuber and Altsek went south to search for a new land without oppressors.
The brothers who left secretly arranged with Huba and Bayan to send word by a golden thread tied to the leg of a falcon or a hawk if they were able to find a free land. One day a falcon sent by Asparukh flew into Huba's room and she and Bayan quickly made plans to escape. Just as they were looking for a place to cross the Danube River, Khazar pursuers spotted them and rushed toward them. Trying to find a ford, Huba let the falcon free. She tied a white thread to its leg and handed it to her brother. Just as the bird was about to take off, an enemy arrow pierced Bayan and his blood stained the white thread.
While Huba and Bayan managed to reach the newly discovered land by Asparukh (present-day Bulgaria), they were both mortally wounded. Asparukh rushed to the side of his dying brother and sister but he could not save them. After their death he tore the pieces of white-and-red blood stained yarn and adorned his soldiers with them.
Martenitsi are always given as gifts. People never buy martentsi for themselves. They are given to loved ones, friends, and those people whom one feels close to. They are worn on clothing, or around the wrist or neck, until the wearer sees a stork or swallow returning from migration, or a blossoming tree, and then removes the Martenitsa and hangs it on a blossoming tree.