After the coldest winter in decades, millions of East Europeans are welcoming in the spring, following centuries-old pagan customs.
People across Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova planned to take advantage of a thaw to buy and give charms to celebrate March 1, a day that symbolizes spring and hope.
The day took on an added poignancy this year after weeks of bitter weather that claimed over 650 lives across the region and produced temperatures so frigid that even the mighty Danube, one of Europe's most important waterways, froze over for hundreds of miles (kilometers). The heaviest blizzards in memory trapped tens of thousands in often-freezing homes and walls of snow made roads impassible.
The good-luck charms are called martisori in Moldova and Romania and martenitsi in Bulgaria, a play on the term for March. In their simplest form they are red-and-white woolen tassels that symbolize love, health and fertility.
Charms are mainly given to women in Romania, to men and women in Moldova and to women, men and animals in Bulgaria. They are pinned to clothing, tied to front gates, even attached to pet collars and cattle horns.
Charms are credited with warding off disease, the evil eye and bad luck, ensuring the fertility of livestock and a plentiful harvest. Unmarried women put their martenitsi under a big stone to find good luck in marriage.
The white pieces of wool, silk or cotton symbolize male strength and longevity, while red pieces represent the female spirit.
In Bulgaria, the "must-have" martenitsi of 2012 is an amulet with the smiling mask depicting Guy Fawkes, which became popular during recent Internet regulation protests.
In Albania, children wear lidhka, a red-and-white charm to mark the beginning of spring on March 14. When the first swallow is spotted, the charm is then hung on a tree to ward off evil spirits.
Charms made in China have flooded the markets recently, replacing traditional tassels with orange, green and yellow threads.
"There are so many products brought in from China or from other countries that are made almost entirely from plastic. The tradition is therefore lost," said Monica Peter, a Romanian who sells traditional charms. "We create products out of biodegradable materials like paper, natural threads or dried plants."
Struggling retirees have spent months creating the tiny, intricate trinkets to boost their meager incomes.
"I've been embroidering ... since I was young and have been making martisori for four years," said Maria Bruj, 65, from Bistrita in Transylvania, who was selling lace and beaded charms at a Bucharest fair. "The income helps me survive."
Bulgarian martenitsi should be worn until March 22, unless you see a stork or a spring blossom. Then the charm is tied to a tree branch as the owner makes a wish.
Associated Press Writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria and Corneliu Rusnac in Chisinau, Moldova and Llazar Seimini in Tirana, Albania contributed to this report.
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