Mongolian Lunar New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar (White Month). It is celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice and is a traditional holiday lasting a minimum of three days that brings together family members.
Prior To Tsagaan Sar – In brief, you clean!
The preparation for Tsagaan Sar begins weeks before the actual national holiday. Mongolians prepare for the new year by cleaning. Everything is cleaned. Even streets get cleaned. You clean your house/apartment/ger. Many families will take this time to redecorate by buying new carpets or rugs to hang on the walls. In addition to new household goods, families will buy new clothing as well.
Basically, you are cleaning out the previous year – both literally and metaphorically with old quarrels being reconciled and outstanding money paid back. Tsagaan Sar brings together family and friends – the problems between each other are put behind them and you start over fresh – you do not bring previous problems forward into the New Year.
Bituun – New Year’s Eve – In brief, prepare and then eat a lot of mutton dumplings
New Year’s Eve is known as ‘bituun’ – meaning to close down. This is the last night of the current lunar year — when the moon is invisible and darkness is total.
Prior to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolian families make literally hundreds of buuz – Mongolian dumplings (kept frozen until they are steamed for the guests – no need for a freezer when outside it is -30 at night!). Tsagaan Sar is a time when Mongolians come together to show respect to the family elders and the number of buuz prepared is a way of showing respect to the eldest members of the family. On bituun people eat to be full – it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year.
This is bituun in the words of our guest Ross Briggs:
‘On to our hosts, the Zorgio family. We are invited into the main ger, it is beautiful. Centre at the back of the ger is the Tsagaan Sar feast. A stack of large biscuits, 9 high topped with dried cheeses, dried yoghurt, white sweets and sugar cubes. Around this are plates of buuz, potato salad, pressed mutton, salami and gherkins, pickled vegetables, a large bowl of sweets and beverages. The eldest daughter serves us individually, milk tea first followed by airag (here it is fermented camel milk, I like it) followed by all the dishes and beverages ending with a shot of vodka. The hospitality is marvellous.’
Shiniin Negen – New Year’s Day – In brief, honour the spirits and honour your family
On the morning of the New Year everyone rises before sunrise to greet the sun. Traditionally, the male head of the household honours the nature and spirits of Mongolia by going to an ovoo – a stone shrine placed on a hill or mountain top. They will take food and offerings and the oldest will voice words of gratitude and praise to the spirit of the mountain and the surrounding area. There are two parts to sunrise on New Year’s Day in Mongolia – sending out the old, and welcoming in the new. Most bring offerings with them: milk, rice, and juniper. First, while it’s still dark, you need to send out the old. And then as the sun rises, so you welcome in the new.
(Turuu always says that the air on the first day of Tsagaan Sar is fresh and clean, reminding him that they have successfully passed winter, and that spring has arrived.)
In order to have health and happiness in the new year each individual must take their ‘first steps of the New Year’. Their lunar year of birth and the current year will dictate the direction that they walk in – it is believed to be important to start your way in the right direction on the first day of the new year.
After the first steps are taken all family members re-enter their home and start the Tsagaan Sar greetings. There are many traditions followed between families on this day such as passing the snuff bottle. The symbolism of the passing of the snuff bottle is new friendship and honouring friends and family.
However, one of the most formal traditions is when family members honour their senior relatives in a greeting called ‘zolgokh.’ This is when the younger person places their arms under the elder person’s and hold their elbows to show support and respect for them as their elder. This is all with the exception of the husband and wife as they are considered one person so they don’t need to be greeted by each other. The zolgokh greeting is carried out with a khadag – the blue sacred scarf. Everyone has their own and uses it throughout the Tsagaan Sar period.
The traditional greeting is ‘Ta amar mend baina uu?’ which means ‘How are you doing?’ The answer back to the first greeting is ‘Amar mendee’ which means I am fine, I am good.
And again, New Year’s Day in the words of our guest Ross Briggs:
‘Shine Negiin (New Year’s Day) sees everyone together for zolgokh, a ceremony to show respect and support for your elders. The eldest person is the mother of the Zorgio family, she has pride of place and I, being the second eldest, sit beside her. The rest of the family form a line around the inside of the ger in age order and start by greeting the mother first and then me. Being the eldest we are supported at our elbows, the greeting ‘amar mend uu’ is exchanged, and we kiss the cheeks of all the others. The line folds on its self until everyone has greeted each other, the younger person with their hands under the elbows of the older. I feel very honoured to be included in this very Mongolian ceremony.’
The Tsagaan Sar Table – In brief, mutton!
Mongolians typically prepare three important dishes for Tsagaan Sar as well as the buuz mentioned above there is also boov – a traditional Mongolian bread (basically biscuits made of flour).
The boov are stacked in layers which have to be an odd number – three, five, etc – as the odd numbers represent happiness. The older the family members, the higher the stack of boov to show respect (the number of levels indicates the status of the family, which is determined by the age of the parents and the number of their children). The boov is then decorated with aaruul (Mongolian dried cheese) and small sweets.
Also on the table you will find a whole back of a sheep including the fat of its tail. Mongolians try to cook a sheep with as big a tail as possible, wishing the family wealth and prosperity. It is served on the table for the entirety of the holiday.
And if you do find yourself joining a family for Tsagaan Sar remember that you should not be angry, greedy or sad. You clear your mind and spirit of all negative things and open it up to pure clean positive thoughts.
If you’re interested in experiencing Tsagaan Sar with Eternal Landscapes you’ll find more details on our Winter Tours in Mongolia. We look forward to welcoming you. And as we say in Mongolia during Tsagaan Sar – ‘sar shinedee saikhan shineleerei.’
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes