Childhood memories revived when I watched short live stream from Serres in Northern Greece this morning. Children in traditional dresses with a red pom pom on white headscarf were singing the Spring Carols. On their wrists all children wore Martis, the bracelet made of red and white string. The name Martis is the common name of the month March (Martios or Martis).
Immediately I remember my great grand mother who used to tie the Martis around my wrist on the 1st day of March.
Ages have passed since I was part of the Martis ritual yet I have my great granny’s words in my ears: So that the sun won’t burn your cheeks.
Apparently the sun in March is especially harming.
Ages have passed and memories have faded away. For example I think my Martis was just red and not red and white. In fact I am pretty sure my bracelet was one-colored. I reckon I was so jealous once to see a really thick red and white Oh-I-want-to have- this Martis on the wrist of a neighborhood girl whose family had moved to the big city from a village in Thebes. It certainly had no knots. My Martis was a simple string in bright red.
I cannot remember for how long I used to go around showing my Martis off. But the tradition have it that it was worn from March 1st to 31st.
And I am not sure that great granny did tie a Martis around my brother’s wrist.
Nether am I sure whether I wore the Martis on my left or on the right wrist. My tricky (?) memory tells me it was on the left wrist – probably because I was left-handed. But back then, it wasn’t right to be left-handed so great granny most likely used to tie it around the right wrist. And then I was wrong. Surfing on the internet, I read what is has to be on the left hand because the left side of our body is the ‘receiving side’ close to our heart.
making the red and white bracelet
None of the family’s adult women wore the red and white bracelet. It was apparently only for kids – at least in our family tradition.
There seem to be several explanations for the meaning of the red and white color, and this explanations locally vary. One of the explanations I heard on the report from Serres is that back then – when? – women had to be white. Apparently the white skin of a woman’s face would distinguish a woman of a wealthy class from the sun-burned woman working in the fields. Base on these meaning, then i remember right that it was only me going around with my red bracelet and not my brother.
What happens with the Martis on March 31st? A teacher in the report from Serres said that “children tie the bracelet on a rose tree. Then the first swallow comes and picks it up to make its nest.”
According to other suggestions, the bracelet has to be thrown into a bonfire or burn with the Resurrection light.
The Martis is certainly a pre-Christian custom common in the folks in Balkan countries and the Middle East.
Some see connection between the Martis and the Eleusinian Mysteries were initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. The Mysteries were the “most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece” and were held twice a year in February/March and September.
Others claim that on March 1st ancient folks would celebrate the beginning of the new year.
In the Greek Orthodoxy it is supposed to symbolize the blood of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
A friend told me this morning that the red and white bracelet is the talisman that keeps away next the the sun, also the evil eye, the sickness and all kinds of misfortune. This is probably the modern version in times of globalization as a red string (Kalava) on the forehand has been used during Sanskrit mantras to ward off the evil in east India. Other versions claim the custom comes from Judaism and Kabbalah although this is also questioned.
What ever the meaning or the purpose, enjoy the beginning of spring with or without a Martis.
PS My great grand mother was born in 1880 in village at the sea shore of Asia Minor. She was just 100 years old when she passed away.