The simple martaki carries surprisingly complex layers of meaning. The tradition is easy: on the first of March, you tie red and white string around your wrist. This string is called the “martaki,” after the Greek word for March. So, it’s is a “little March bracelet!” When I first heard of the martaki a few years ago, of course the first question I asked was, “why?” This little unassuming piece of string, I would come to discover, is full of meaning. This little martaki is not simply a mark of the passage of time year after year. The martaki is a way to welcome spring and is simultaneously a symbol and expression of hope.
On a small level, the martaki signals that winter is almost over – memories of spring and summer come into our minds. We think of flowers and trees becoming green with leaves again. We imagine birds chirping and dream of eating a perfect tomato again. We remember staying up later, waking up to sunshine, swimming in pools and oceans, freedom from endless schoolwork, relaxed work responsibilities, and not spending 10 minutes putting on layers every time we leave the house. This is hope.
Perhaps spring brings to mind the story of mythological Persephone, emerging from the underworld each year so the earth can come out its state of mourning and blossom once again. The ancient Greeks found a beautiful and enduring representation of spring in this myth - even in the darkest moments of winter, even in the greatest despair, there is hope. The martaki, centuries later, seems to echo this human desire for hope at an intimate and personal level.
On a cultural level across Greece, the traditions vary from family to family and from region to region. Some wear the martaki as whimsical protection from the sun as it gets stronger with the approach of Spring. For others, the custom is connected to nature and agriculture. When your bracelet falls off, you place it on a fruit tree so the tree will yield a bountiful harvest. Alternatively, you leave it on a branch so that a bird can use the thread to build their nest. Yet another tradition is to leave the bracelet on until you see a swallow returning for the spring. It is also connected to Orthodoxy, where the faithful put it on at the beginning of Lent and wear it until Easter. And of course, there is the opportunity to make a wish when your martaki falls off! Within each of these traditions, you can find the common theme of hope – hope in the Resurrection, hope for sunshine, hope for an adequate harvest, hope for what may come.
Whether this is your first year wearing a martaki or you have worn one all your life, let it bring you happiness, joy, and - most importantly - hope.