Forget February, move on to March

On March first of 2003 I was in Chisinau, Moldova, walking from stall to stall at the openair farmer's market selecting the fresh foods I wanted for the next week.

It was cold. Snow was still on the ground and the sun was trying to come through to shine on the crowds of Saturday morning shoppers.

I noticed little red and white tassels in the lapels of the people. Others were busy buying them from the women vendors standing on the edge of the crowd.

"What are those red and white tassels I see on everyone?" I asked Van, the Peace Corps director for the country, who was busy selecting some strange looking lettuce from the pile stacked under a glass domed frame with a lighted candle to keep the leaves from freezing.

"The lapel flowers are called Martisor and are tokens of love and friendship," he said, paying for his lettuce, placing it in a tote bag. "Moldovans believe they are a symbol of new life, love, peace, and health. They give them to each other and wear them the first week of March. Some wear them until the last day of the month. Then they hang them on a tree limb to assure a good harvest. I don't know if it works, but that's what they do.

"The tradition of Martisor represents the struggle between winter and spring with spring winning by the end of the month," he said.

We walked over to a vendor and selected a Martisor for each of us, paying a few lei or less than a dollar for it. "If this will bring on spring, I'm all for it," I said, carefully pinning the amulet on my lapel.

When I arrived at the office on Monday, proudly displaying my Martisor, Catalina, my assistant, smiled. "I see you are becoming Moldovan," she said. "Do you know the legend behind the custom?"

I didn't. In her usual efficient way, she proceeded to tell me.

There were many legends behind this tradition. One version goes like so:

"It seems that long ago the sun came to the villages as a handsome young man so that he could dance at wedding parties and celebrations. One day at a national dance festival, he was stolen by a dragon and taken away. The whole world grieved, the birds did not sing, and the children cried. No one dared to fight the dragon, until the hero arrived. He was the one person brave enough to fight the dragon and free the sun.

"He set off, walking a summer, then an autumn, and finally through the frosty winter. He found the castle of the terrible dragon. The dragon and our hero fought long and hard. They shed blood and sweat on the snow. At last the hero killed the dragon. He set the handsome sun free. Nature began to revive; the people were happy.

"Sadly, the brave man did not live to see spring. The snow thawed where his warm blood dropped and white snowdrops appeared heralding the beginning of spring. The last drop of strength and blood fell from the hero's arm on the first of March. Since then, in his memory, the people create the red and white tassels."

Seeing the red and white tiny flowers on the lapels of the people as I went about my business that week made me believe that the ice and snow would melt, the plants would begin to peek up from the ground, the birds would begin to sing and spring would come. It was a tangible sign of hope seen everywhere you looked.

In an effort to help spring come as soon as possible, I will wear the little red and white tassels of Martisor in my lapel beginning March first. It worked in Moldova; spring did come. I am sure it will work in Michigan. Care to join me?

Published: Fri, Mar 5, 2010